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BOOK II

THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

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BOOK II

THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

1

ENGLISH HISTORY FROM 1700 to 1800

When the eighteenth century began, the reign of William III. was about as near its close as that of Elizabeth was a hundred years before. In 1702 William was succeeded by Queen Anne. In 1714 George I. followed her, founding the dynasty which still holds the throne. George II. succeeded him in 1727; and in 1760 came George III., whose reign extended till 1820. The names of these sovereigns instantly suggest certain familiar facts, of which the chief is that during the first half of the century the succession remained somewhat in doubt. It was only in 1745, when the reign of George II. was more than half finished, that the last fighting with Stuart pretenders occurred on British soil. On British soil, but not on English: there has been no actual warfare in England since in 1685 the battle of Sedgmoor suppressed the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion against James II. These obvious facts indicate historical circumstances which have had profound effect on English character.

Continental nations are now and again disposed to call the English a nation of shopkeepers; and certainly during the past two centuries the commercial prosperity of England has exceeded that of most other countries. An imperative condition of such prosperity is peace and domestic order. Good business demands an efficient police, and in general a state of life which permits people to devote themselves to their own affairs, trusting politics to those whose office it is to govern. Under such circumstances people have small delight in civil wars and disputed successions. Many eighteenth-century Englishmen, no doubt, who in the perspective of a hundred and fifty years look romantically attractive, thought the divine right of the Stuarts unquestionable, and the Georges usurpers; but parliamentary government could give England what divine right could no longer give it, - prosperous public order. In the course of the eighteenth century, then, there steadily grew a body of public opinion, at last overwhelming, which with all the tenacity of British unreason maintained the actual state of the constitution. The whole force of social and political history in England tended slowly but surely to the maintenance of established institutions.

During this eighteenth century we accordingly find in England no such radical changes as marked the preceding. Though George III. survived William of Orange far longer than William had survived Queen Elizabeth, we can feel between the Prince of Orange and his native English successor no such contrast as we felt between William and the last Tudor queen. For all that, the century was not stagnant; and perhaps our simplest way of estimating its progress is to name four English battles which are still enough remembered to be recorded in the brief historical summaries of Ryland's “ Outlines of English Literature.” In 1704 was fought the battle of Blenheim ; in 1745, that of Fontenoy ; in 1759 Wolfe fell victorious at Quebec; and in 1798 Nelson won the first of his great naval victories - the battle of the Nile.

Whatever else these battles have in common, all four were fought against the French, — the one continental power whose coast is in sight of England. Throughout the century, then, the English Channel was apt to be an armed frontier ; the geographical isolation of England was tending toward that international isolation which until our own time has been so

marked. A second fact about these four battles is almost as obvious. However important the questions at issue, people nowadays have generally forgotten what Blenheim and Fontenoy were fought about. Of Blenheim, indeed, we remember, along with the great name of Marlborough, only the poem by Southey, where old Caspar, his work done, tells little Peterkin, who is rolling about the skulls just turned up by the ploughshare, how these were the fruits of the famous victory; and when Peterkin inquires what the dead soldiers died for, all old Caspar can tell him is that Marlborough was there, and Prince Eugene, and that the victory was famous. Southey doubtless intended this poem as a protest against war; it now seems rather an unwitting satire on historic tradition. For though this tradition has preserved the names of Blenheim and of Marlborough and of Eugene, it has quite forgotten why Englishmen and Frenchmen were struggling to the death in 1704. So of Fontenoy : tradition keeps surely alive only a doubtful anecdote that when the French and English were face to face, some French officer pulled off his hat with a polite bow and civilly invited the enemy to fire first. The other two battles which we have called to mind, those of Quebec and of the Nile, were fought in the second half of the century; and of these tradition still remembers the objects. The battle of Quebec finally assured the dominance in America of the English Law. The battle of the Nile began to check that French revolutionary power which under the transitory empire of Napoleon once seemed about to conquer the whole civilised world, and which met its final defeat seventeen years later at Waterloo.

The names of Blenheim and the Nile suggest one more fact : each of these battles gave England a national hero. Marlborough we have already glanced at, — a soldier of the closing seventeenth century as well as of the dawning eighteenth, whose career asserted that in the political struggles of continental Europe England could never be left out of

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