Toland: the republican who argued for (limited) monarchy

Sophia of Hanover
The young Sophia of Hanover
Wikimedia, public domain.

At first glance it may seem bizarre that John Toland, whose first book was burned by Act of Parliament, was a member of Lord Macclesfield’s delegation in 1701, delivering the Act of Succession to the Electress Sophia. This Act named her the heiress to Anne (soon to be Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland), as her closest Protestant relative. (The religious distinction was crucial; there were scores of closer Catholic relatives.)

In fact this was just one piece in an ongoing role advocating for Protestant liberties and the Hanoverian succession, a fact made odder in modern eyes because Toland was a republican. Not merely an armchair republican, Toland was actively engaged in editing and re-publishing English republican works of the 1650s (Milton, Ludlow, Sidney and Harrington). However he was living in a time when republicanism was still vilified and linked to regicide and rebellion; naturally so given the Civil War and rule of Cromwell were events in living memory. To become respectable republicanism became more moderate.

In reviving and reworking republicanism, Toland was not working alone. He moved in Whig circles, supported by figures such as Robert Molesworth (of the Molesworth Circle) and Lord Shaftesbury. In these circles, and for ‘commonwealthsmen’ around Europe “the act that confirmed the succession of Sophia of Hanover was a republican device to exclude both popery and tyranny.” (1). It was, after all, subtitled ‘for the further limitation of the crown and better securing the rights and liberties of the subject’.

However, the republican sympathies in England were one thing that gave Sophia pause. She had to be reassured that the English “love of liberty” did not entail hatred of kings. She was no doubt reassured by the copy of Anglia Libera Toland brought with him to Hanover which supported Sophia’s claim to the throne. Book in hand, Toland managed to place himself right at the heart of proceedings, later boasting:

‘I was the first who had the Honour of kneeling and kissing her hand on account of the Act of Succession’

Facsimile of the Act of Settlement sent to Electress Sophia of Hanover Torsten Bätge - own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Facsimile of the Act of Settlement sent to Electress Sophia of Hanover
Torsten Bätge – own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anglia libera: or the limitation and succession of the Crown of England explained and asserted (1701) justifies the Act of Succession, and the reinvention of republicanism as limited monarchy. In it Toland drew on Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Locke said that that mature men are free “to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature”, the law of Nature being Reason (x). Toland agrees, and paints civil society as a means for such persons to assure greater security for themselves and their belongings, and to assist each other. This requires laws for the good of the community, created by indifferent legislators, which apply to all and can be called on by all.

This natural and reasonable state is very different to the arbitrary power exercised by absolute monarchs. Toland terms such powers as an exercise of passion, not reason. Such power is worse than the original state of nature, before civil society.

Free governments on the other side improve the wellbeing of (hu)mankind, encouraging all to develop, but being especially advantageous to the “common people” in terms of freedom and plenty. Toland emphasises this is not just econmonical wellbeing but social, encouraging arts, learning and innovation. In the most healthy states, there would be no intolerance directed against the expression of religion or philosophical ideas.

Civil liberty depended, argued Toland, on ‘liberty of the understanding’. He argued it is natural for countries to have a national religion, and such a religion would act against the tyranny of superstition and popish idolatry. But those who dissented from the national religion should not be punished for it, either physically, via their property or by removal of privileges.

Toland links this state, the state that the Hanoverians will rule over, to the history of freedom in England. He evokes the struggles over power, the attempts of the Stuart kings to wield arbitrary power, of clergymen attempting to make the people willing slaves, and the actions of James II which Toland says so breached the contract between king and subjects it meant he had forfeited the right to rule. Toland painted William III as selected by Parliament for his virtue and the Act of Settlement as a further bulwark against attempts to restore Stuart kings and the loss of liberty such restoration would entail.

Republicanism in Toland’s hands became the basis for arguing for the rule of reason over tyranny and superstition. For Toland, liberty in matters of religion was essential to underpin political freedom. This particular aim he considered to be compatible with good monarchy such as that of William III but not with notions of the Divine Right of Kings espoused by the Stuarts. In summary (2)

The resonance with the idea of a remodelled monarchy found in the editions of Harrington, Milton et al., and Anglia libera is profound. The Act of Settlement was a ‘republican’ measure intended to reinforce ‘liberty’ in the tradition of Magna Charta and the Petition of Right. This reworking of the relationship between kingship and liberty was initiated (according to Toland) by William III’s dedication to the preservation of liberty. As indicated in his speech to Parliament in February 1701, William placed restraints upon prerogative just like Theopompus, King of Sparta, ordained ‘the Ephori, or overseers, shou’d be created at Lacedemon, to be such a restraint upon the Kings there, as the Tribuns are on the Consul at Rome’. Monarchy, as bound by law, was a key part of ‘our present form of government’ thus ‘shou’d never be abolisht’.

Arguments parallel to Toland’s were made in Sophia’s own court: “Leibniz, one of Sophia’s philosophical and political advisors, reduced republican principles to an opposition to arbitrary power and the establishment of ‘L’empire de la raison’.” (3)

Sophia of Hanover about the time of the Act of Succession
Sophia of Hanover about the time of the Act of Succession
Wikimedia, public domain.

Leibniz was already aware of Toland’s reputation as a philosopher but Toland’s book opened the doors to the Hanover court. Sophia was taken with Toland and conversed on philosophical matters with him often. However she was advised to be wary of him and managed to avoid him embroiling her in public political scandal. Her letters to Leibniz suggest she had sympathy for Toland: “he has all Christianity against him.” But like Molyneaux before her, she also recognised his argumentative nature (4). In 1702 she tells Leibniz that she believes Toland dare not return to England: “He who burnt the Temple at Ephesus did not have a worse reputation.” Leibniz replies telling her that in Berlin Toland has been ordered to keep silent. Sophia replies:

I am not at all surprised at the advice that was given to Toland to keep quiet, because his tongue makes him odious everywhere. I see neither morality nor politics in speaking as he does, and that makes him hated everywhere, and I am not inclined to pay for that forever, although at present he has excited my charity.

Toland also visited Sophia’s daughter Sophie Charlotte, who was less concerned about politics and more ready to be linked with Toland publicly. Her comment was “it’s true that his language is a little free, but I find that he is becoming more and more wise”. (5) It was to her that Toland’s Letters to Serena (1704) was addressed.

Sophia remained in contact but tended to distance herself more as time passed and the throne came closer. Toland returned to England after living on the continent from 1707 to 1710, where he published a series of pamphlets against what he saw as reviving efforts to return the Stuarts to the throne.

Sophia’s death in 1714 preceded that of Queen Anne that same year. Sophia’s son became George I, and the scales turned in favour of commonwealth politicians like Robert Molesworth. Between 1717 and 1720 Toland was at the height of his powers. He hoped to achieve political change through his writings: to remove the last remnants of popery from the Established Church and to establish complete civil toleration.

It was not to be. In 1720 the South Sea Bubble broke. The South Sea company had been founded under Queen Anne to consolidate government debt and had been used even more extensively under George I. The political fallout tarnished many committed to the radical reforms Toland favoured. The same year Walpole returned to government. He chose to ally with the Established Church, undermining Toland’s favoured anticlerical programme. The final blow: financially, Toland was ruined.

By 1722 he was a marginal figure, a sick man living in Putney away from serious political circles. He died on the 10th March, 1722, a long way from the Court at Hanover, and from the Donegal hillside where he had been born and the Penal Laws held sway.

Further Reading/Watching

This blog post was inspired by a piece by Caroline Crampton: Caroline of Ansbach: the Georgian queen who brought the Enlightenment to Britain which also talks in detail about Sophia.

Another inspiration: BBC’s The First Georgians presented by Dr Lucy Worsley.

J.N. Duggan has written on Sophia of Hanover, published a short bio of John Toland, and some of Toland’s works including his account of the Hanoverian Court.

Ian Leaske’s edition of Letters to Serena, plus his interview on the book and John Toland’s legacy.


(1) Justin Champion, Republican Learning: John Toland, p. 116
(2) Quote from p. 122 of Champion’s Republican Learning. For more on Anglia libera see Chapter 5, “Anglia libera:
Protestant liberties and the Hanoverian succession, 1700–14” In Justin Champion, Republican Learning: John Toland
(3) Republican Learning p. 122
(4) Quotes from the correspondence of Leibnitz and Sophia from J.N. Duggan’s John Toland: Ireland’s Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar … And Heretic
(5) Republican Learning p. 120

Further Reading

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on The Hanoverian Succession.

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