The Rise of Patriotism

The accession of the Hanoverians effectively marked the start of a half-century of Whig rule in which a succession of Whig ministers (most famously Robert Walpole) consolidated Whig oligarchy through measures such as the Septennial Act of 1716, which stipulated a seven-year interval between elections. Yet the Whigs did not enjoy power unopposed. It is from the seeds of resistance and opposition to Whig rule — by 1739, an overwhelming clamor — that some of the liveliest and most imaginative political poetry of the eighteenth century emerged. As early as 1720, the year in which mass popular financial speculation through investment in the South Sea Company and other schemes had ended with what was widely perceived to be national ruin, opponents of the Whig administration were developing a political critique founded on a sense of civic virtue. "Cato's Letters," published in the London Journal of 1720—1, looked back to seventeenth-century political theorists such as James Harrington for their critique of modern Britain. This tradition emphasized the fragility of Britain's balanced constitution of monarch, lords, and commons: corruption, once it had gained entrance, would — if unchecked — eventually lead to national ruin. From this civic-humanist critique evolved an ideology familiarly known as "patriotism." Patriotism entailed constant vigilance, a suspicion of anything that threatened the independence of the Commons, particularly corruption. It came to embrace a deep suspicion of the institutional consequences of the late seventeenth-century financial revolution: the credit systems established to fund William III's costly Nine Years War, the Bank of England, the National Debt, and large City finance houses such as the South Sea Company. Patriotism as a political credo and an ideology designed to unite disparate opponents of the Whig hegemony came to its full maturity from 1725 onwards, when it received a succinct and potent formulation in pamphlets and newspapers such as The Craftsman (edited by Bolingbroke and the opposition Whig William Pulteney). It is ironic that the widespread political usage of the terms "patriotism" and "Patriot," evoking a sense of national unity, emerges from the growth of faction and party, and the concomitant disagreement about who truly represents the nation's interests. Patriotism in its political sense is the child of party politics. In 1681 Dryden, as Tory propagandist for Charles II, vilified the ambitious Whig leader Shaftesbury as a Patriot in the "modern" sense — one who cloaks his political ambition as love of his country. In 1700, by now a disempowered opponent of William III, Dryden used the term "Patriot" in an oppositional sense to praise his moderate backbench MP cousin John Driden.

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