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01 Sep

Steele’s Crisis

The debate between The Crisis and The Public Spirit of the Whigs exemplifies not only Swift’s personal animosity toward Steele, but, at a more profound level, the basic disagreement between Steele and his Tory antagonists about the meaning of 1688. For Steele, the authority of the monarch derived from the consent of the governed, and the people, acting jointly, had the right to replace the monarch when he or she seriously violated their safety or even interests. The difficulty of replacing the monarch acted as a restraint on civic disorder; the possibility of such replacement acted as a deterrent to monarchical excess. But for Tories no such right was structured into or implied by the constitution. The authority of the Crown derived from Divine approval as providentially manifested in history. If extraordinary circumstances required a violent intervention in order to ensure the safety of the nation (and especially of the Church), the revolution might be a lesser evil, but it did not flow from the inherent rights of citizens. For Steele, revolution principles were an important protection of civic order,; for Tories, Steele’s argument undermined the substance and continuity of monarchical rule and opened the way to radical excesses.

From Charles A. Knight (2009) A Political Biography of Richard Steele, London: Pickering & Chatto, pp. 135-6.

Best known as the editor of and writer for periodicals such as The Tatler and The Spectator, Steele also had a career (as Swift did) as a writer of political polemic.

Steele and Swift had been at loggerheads for some time. The two writers originally had been friends, but Swift’s shift towards the Tory party had caused a rift that escalated into open war from 1711 when Swift attacked the Duke of Marlborough in a pamphlet The Conduct of the Allies. The hounding of Marlborough continued in the periodical The Examiner (originally edited by Swift). Steele denounced these attacks in his paper The Guardian and in June 1713 he severed his links with the Oxford/Bolingbroke government. In the following election Steele became the MP for Stockbridge.

On 19 January 1714 Steele’s Crisis was published. This pamphlet praised the previous Whig administration and attacked those Steele suspected of opposing the Hanoverian succession (i.e. Tories in general and the Oxford ministry in particular). He railed against Catholicism and argued that without the Hanoverian succession Britain was in danger of being ruled by “popish princes” bent on removing British liberties or of becoming a mere province of France. The pamphlet was attacked, not least by Swift’s Public Spirit of the Whigs which appeared on 23 February. That work provoked controversy of its own by ferociously attacking the Union between England and Scotland, deeply annoying Scottish peers who complained to the Queen.

Steele was accused of seditious writings and in March 1714 was expelled from Parliament. The hearing of the case in Parliament was felt by the Whigs to have helped their cause. Oxford, on the other hand, was occupied in defusing an inquiry by the Lords into the authorship of the Public Spirit of the Whigs.

On 1 August Queen Anne died. Despite the belief of at least some Tories that the hereditary principle should prevail over the Act of Succession, George of Hanover was crowned in Westminster abbey on 20 October. The Whigs took control of parliament. Steele was again an MP from 1715 until his death in 1727, criticising the government when he felt it strayed from Whig principles.

References and Further Reading

Andrew A. Hanham (2002) “STEELE, Richard (1672-1729)” in D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley (eds) The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, Boydell and Brewer. Online at The History of Parliament Online.

Ruth Paley (2014) “Jonathan Swift and the Union with Scotland” in The History of Parliament (Blog).

Charles A. Knight (2009) A Political Biography of Richard Steele, London: Pickering & Chatto, pp. 117-122 and pp. 135-169.

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