Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 50.djvu/371

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


ject against—your secrecy and your being incapable of being corrupted.’ Thwarted in several directions by the extreme tory faction, Halifax carried the war into the enemy's camp by accusing Rochester of malversation at the treasury. Rochester retreated before the committee appointed to investigate the matter, on which Halifax had a nominee; but the influence of James availed to procure Rochester the more dignified post of lord president. Halifax's well-known comment was that Rochester had been ‘kicked upstairs.’ In December 1684, when it was proposed in the council to emasculate the charter of Massachusetts, like those of the English municipalities, he stoutly defended the cause of the colonists. Although Charles gave his adversaries, who enlarged to him upon the impropriety of Halifax's view of constitutional questions, some hopes of his dismissal, Halifax managed to hold his own and something more. The tide, in fact, turned in his favour. In this same month (December) he arranged the secret visit of Monmouth to England, and early in January 1685 a letter was despatched, under the king's signature, promising him permission to return to the court. Sanguine of baffling the rival factions at the court, Halifax opportunely seized the moment to circulate his memorable ‘Character of a Trimmer.’ The object of this tract (the title of which appears to have been provoked by L'Estrange's ‘Humour of a Trimmer’ in the ‘Observator’ for 3 Dec. 1684) was to convey in ‘a seeming trifle the best counsel that could be given to the king’—namely, to throw off the yoke of his brother. The writer ingeniously appropriated the good sense of the word ‘trimmer’ in which it is used to signify the steadying of a boat by ballast. After a fine encomium upon liberty, the author proceeded to demonstrate the necessary equilibrium of liberty and dominion in our constitution in words that (as in the case of his defence of colonial liberties) often anticipate the ideas and even the phrasing of Burke.

The ‘Character’ was certainly circulated in manuscript at the time of its composition, but was not printed until April 1688, when the title was inscribed ‘By the Honourable Sir W[illiam] C[oventry].’ A second and third edition appeared in the same year with Coventry's name in full. In 1697 ‘another edition’ alluded to a revision by ‘the late M. of Halifax;’ in 1699 the work itself was issued as by ‘the late noble Marquis of Halifax.’ In spite of the contradiction in the original title, the fact of Halifax's authorship is beyond question (English Hist. Rev. October 1896). The tract was primarily assigned to Coventry for no better reason than that the printer worked from a copy found among Sir William's papers. It was avowed by Halifax after its appearance in 1688, when it attracted general attention (Lord Mulgrave's feeble reply, entitled ‘The Character of a Tory,’ is printed in his ‘Works,’ 1723, ii. 29. See Sheffield, John, Duke of Buckinghamshire).

By the middle of January 1685 Halifax was so far successful in his aims as to be able to write to Monmouth that, in order to avert a counter-plot, Charles was prepared to relegate James to Scotland. A few days later the plot itself was undermined by the king's illness and death. It must have been soon after this event, by which his immediate hopes were ruined, that Halifax sat down with admirable philosophy to compose his sympathetic sketch of the ‘Character of King Charles II’ (not printed until 1750).

No share of the confidence of the new king was destined for Halifax. ‘All the past is forgotten,’ James said to him at an early audience, ‘except the service which you did me in the debate on the Exclusion Bill.’ But he was obliged to give up the privy seal and accept the less responsible post of president of the council. The direction of affairs devolved mainly upon Rochester and Sunderland. James deferred to his advice early in October, when discussing the proposed defensive treaty with Holland; but the effect was more than obliterated when Halifax refused to countenance the repeal of the Test and Habeas Corpus Acts. The king thereupon had his name struck out of the council (21 Oct.) Louis was greatly pleased at the news, while the imperial and Dutch ministers extolled the discarded minister in a manner which gave great offence at Whitehall.

Halifax retired to Rufford, whence he sent an optimistic report to the Prince of Orange on the turn that things were taking. The king's illegalities would stultify their author by their extravagance; the Princess Mary being the next heir, her husband had only to remain quiescent. Out of office, Halifax felt that politics were ‘coarse’ work in comparison with ‘the fineness of speculative thought,’ and the tracts that he wrote now in the leisure of retirement entitle him to rank as ‘one of the best pamphleteers that have ever lived’ (Ranke, iv. 115). In the ‘Letter to a Dissenter,’ published without license in 1686 as by ‘T[he] W[riter],’ the nonconformist was entreated to beware ‘of something extraordinary when the church of Rome offereth plaisters for tender consciences.’ The specious character of the