Origins of Conservatism Part II: Marquess of Halifax

Origins of Conservatism Part II: Marquess of Halifax

Brad Johnson, Politics Contributor

*Click here for the first installation of the series*

The contemporary world today has found itself fixated on two phenomena; Identity Politics and the Cult of Personality. Individually, both represent the most tribal and genuinely horrible aspects of human nature. The gravitation towards celebrity and tendency to split into factions based on superficial reasons has ailed mankind for all of history. But in the aftermath of an election in which we saw the epitome of each of these ugly human predispositions square off in a head to head battle for the ages, our country has become as divided as ever. Seemingly, long gone are the days of Statesmen and servant-leaders. Leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher appear as if they lived ages ago.

The Statesmanship exhibited by great servant-leaders of the past was also present in the behavior of a man greatly revered in his time, but one who has largely been lost to the annals of history. That man was George Sevile, the 1st Marquess of Halifax.

Born in on November 11, 1633 in Yorkshire, England, Sevile’s father distinguished himself in the English Civil War and died in 1644. In 1660, Sevile started his career in public service at the age of 27 after being elected to the Lower House of the newly formed Convention Parliament. This came to fruition after the Long Parliament, which acted as a free body not tied to any monarch, disbanded itself in 1660. Since 1649, when Charles I was executed, there had been no monarch and England was instead ruled by Parliament under the direction of Oliver Cromwell. When Charles II assumed the throne, the Convention Parliament pledged allegiance to him. And thus continued a religious struggle in which Sevile would oppose.

A fundamental tenet of Conservatism is the Freedom of Religion. The clash between Protestantism and Catholicism had been raging in England ever since Henry VIII broke away and started the Church of England, or the Anglican Church as we know it here in America. Charles I was executed for his apparent enmity towards Protestantism, exemplified mostly by his marriage to the French princess and Catholic, Henrietta Maria.

Sevile found himself at the forefront of this quarrel. With the passage of the Test Act of 1673, a bill meant largely as a religious test for public office favoring Protestantism, a tough decision was forced upon Sevile. He opposed aspects of the bill that restricted religious freedom, however, he ended up supporting the bill because of his opposition to French interests. He saw French interests as more of a threat than religious restrictions, a view he would come to refute a short time down the road.

A bill found its way to the floor of Parliament in 1678, seeking to ban Roman Catholics from service in the House of Lords. Sevile opposed the bill. Throughout his entire career, Halifax struggled in differentiating Catholicism itself, and Catholically-driven public policy. He was a product of his time, but showed much more preference towards religious freedom than his contemporaries.

Perhaps his most famous defense of religious liberty came in 1680 upon introduction of the Exclusion Bill. The 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, Halifax’s uncle, vigorously supported the bill which sought to obstruct Charles II’s brother from assuming the throne on account of his conversion to Catholicism. Thus sprung a legendary debate between uncle and nephew. It is said that Halifax came out on top, and his performance greatly contributed to the bill’s failure. It is clear, that while Sevile wavered slightly throughout his life on this issue, he solidified himself on the side of religious liberty.  

The mid to late 17th century was a time of ample disarray in England. Sevile established himself a rock, steadfastly upright against the currents of religious tensions and general instability. One crucial response to the general chaos of the time was the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. During Charles II’s rule, Catholics, and anyone else who was not favored by the King, were in jeopardy of being jailed without charge. The bill sought to require courts to supply writs of habeas corpus, or release the prisoner on lack of charges. This principle remains a central one and is even highlighted in Article I, Section IX of the Constitution. Halifax gained the nickname “The Trimmer” because of his preference for restricting tyrannical powers of the executive (the Crown) and opposing radical change.

Throughout the rest of his career, the Marquess of Halifax sought political stability and focused his policy around classically liberal ideals. The foremost example being his role in aiding the transition of power from James II to William and Mary. The Glorious Revolution had broken out and was on the verge of bloody discord. Halifax played a key part in facilitating William of Orange’s ascent to the throne (and preventing James II from suffering the same fate as Charles I).

Radical change is only expedient for agents of chaos, not patrons of society and the institutions that supplement its existence. The rule of law and incremental change is crucial, both for individual liberty and the functions of a republic. Halifax understood this and sought office, not for personal glory, but for the betterment of his fellow Englishmen. Statesmen have been a dying breed, and are on the verge of extinction. Temperament in office is equally important as the driving principles within a public servant. That lesson is one we all should heed in these bizarre times.

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