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[This Life was originally prefixed to the Dissertation on Parties, published in 1771, and afterwards to the large edition of Bolingbroke's Works in 1777. It is written with the author's usual elegance and discrimination of character, but with too evident a partiality to the restless politician whose history it professes to record. Lord Bolingbroke's philosophical writings have never been held in much esteem by the judicious; and even his political tracts, though they bear the marks of an acute and vigorous mind, refer too exclusively to the state of parties in his own time, to be extensively or generally useful. Yet it must be remembered in Goldsmith's vindication, that at the time when he wrote, Lord Bolingbroke's name was invested with a charm which it has now lost: he was still remembered as the secretary of state, the eloquent speaker, and the accomplished man of the world; he had besides been long the idol of the Tory wits of Queen Anne's reign, -of Swift, and Pope, and Arbuthnot, and Gay, whom our author reverenced too deeply to think of questioning their judgment; and to crown all, Goldsmith himself was warmly attached to that school of politics of which Bolingbroke was the great ornament. It must also be admitted, that this ambitious statesman had, on other grounds, a very legitimate claim on the admiration of his biographer. Possessed of the highest talents for business, and of extensive political information — a shrewd judge of character a lover of learning and of learned men - an eloquent writer, and a powerful debater, he seems to have wanted only a little less pride, and a little more moral courage, to have become the leading statesman of his age.-B.]
THERE are some characters that seem formed by nature to take delight in struggling with opposition, and whose most agreeable hours are passed in storms of their own creating. The subject of the present sketch was perhaps, of all others, the most indefatigable in raising himself enemies, to shew his power in subduing them; and was not less employed in improving his superior talents, than in finding objects on which to exercise their activity. His life was spent in a continual conflict of politics; and, as if that was too short for the combat, he has left his memory as a subject of lasting contention.
It is, indeed, no easy matter to preserve an acknowledged impartiality in talking of a man so differently regarded on account of his political, as well as his religious principles. Those whom his politics may please will be sure to condemn him for his religion; and, on the contrary, those most strongly attached to his theological opinions, are the most likely to decry his politics. On whatever side he is regarded, he is sure to have opposers; and this was perhaps what he most desired, having, from nature, a mind better pleased with the struggle than the victory.
Henry St John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke, was born in the year 1672, at Battersea, in Surrey, at a seat that had been in the possession of his ancestors for ages before. His family was of the first rank, equally conspicuous for its antiquity, dignity, and large possessions. It is found to trace its original as high as Adam de Port, Baron of Basing, in Hampshire, before the Conquest; and in a succession of ages, to have produced warriors, patriots, and statesmen, some of whom were conspicuous for their loyalty, and others for their defending the rights of the people. His grandfather, Sir Walter St John, of Battersea, marrying one of the daughters of Lord Chief Justice St John, who, as all know, was strongly attached to the republican party, Henry, the subject of the present memoir, was brought up in his family, and, consequently, imbibed the first principles of his education amongst the dissenters. At that time, Daniel Burgess, a fanatic of a very peculiar kind, being at once possessed of zeal and humour, and as well known for the archness of his conceits as the furious obstinacy of his principles, was confessor in the presbyterian way to his grandmother, and was appointed to direct our author's first studies. Nothing is so apt to disgust a feeling mind as mistaken zeal; and, perhaps, the absurdity of the first lectures he received might have given him that contempt for all religions, which he might have justly conceived against one. Indeed, no task can be more mortifying than what he was condemned to undergo. "I was obliged," says he, in one place," while yet a boy, to read over the commentaries of Dr Manton, whose pride it was to have made an hundred and nineteen sermons on the hundred and nineteenth psalm." Dr Manton and his sermons were not likely to prevail much on one who was, perhaps, the most sharp-sighted in the world at discovering the absurdities of others, however he might have been guilty of establishing many of his own.
But these dreary institutions were of no very long con. tinuance; as soon as it was fit to take him out of the hands of the women, he was sent to Eton school, and removed thence to Christ Church College in Oxford. His genius and understanding were seen and admired in both these seminaries, but his love of pleasure had so much the ascendency, that he seemed contented rather with the consciousness of his own great powers, than their exertion. However, his friends, and those who knew him most intimately, were
thoroughly sensible of the extent of his mind; and when he left the university, he was considered as one who had the fairest opportunity of making a shining figure in active life.
Nature seemed not less kind to him in her external embellishments than in adorning his mind. With the graces of a handsome person, and a face in which dignity was happily blended with sweetness, he had a manner of address that was very engaging. His vivacity was always awake, his apprehension was quick, his wit refined, and his memory amazing his subtlety in thinking and reasoning was profound; and all these talents were adorned with an elocution that was irresistible.
To the assemblage of so many gifts from nature, it was expected that art would soon give her finishing hand; and that a youth begun in excellence, would soon arrive at perfection: but such is the perverseness of human nature, that an age which should have been employed in the acquisition of knowledge, was dissipated in pleasure; and instead of aiming to excel in praiseworthy pursuits, Bolingbroke seemed more ambitious of being thought the greatest rake about town. This period might have been compared to that of fermentation in liquors, which grow muddy before they brighten; but it must also be confessed, that those liquors which never ferment are seldom clear.* In this state of disorder, he was not without his lucid intervals: and even while he was noted for keeping Miss Gumley, the most expensive prostitute in the kingdom, and bearing the greatest quantity of wine without intoxication, he even then despised his paltry ambition. The love of study," says he," and desire of knowledge, were what I felt all my life: and though my genius, unlike the demon of Socrates, whispered so softly, that very often I heard him not in the hurry of these passions with which I was transported, yet some calmer hours there were, and in them I hearkened to him." These sacred admonitions were indeed very few, since his excesses are remembered to this very day. I have spoken to an old man, who assured me, that he saw him and one of his companions run naked through the Park in a fit
Our author appears fond of this figure, for we find it introduced into his Essay on Polite Literature. The propriety, however, both of the simile, and of the position it endeavours to illustrate, is very questionable.