The accession of George the First marked a change in the position of England in the European Commonwealth. From the age of the Plantagenets the country had stood apart from more than passing contact with the fortunes of the Continent. But the Revolution had forced her to join the Great Alliance of the European peoples; and shameful as were some of its incidents, the Peace of Utrecht left her the main barrier against the ambition of the House of Bourbon. And not only did the Revolution set England irrevocably among the powers of Europe, but it assigned her a special place among them. The result of the alliance and the war had been to establish what was then called a "balance of power " between the great European states; a balance which rested indeed not so much on any natural equilibrium of forces as on a compromise wrung from warring nations by the exhaustion of a great struggle; but which, once recognized and established, could be adapted and readjusted, it was hoped, to the varying political conditions of the time. Of this balance of power, as recognized and defined in the Treaty of Utrecht and its successors, England became the special guardian. The stubborn policy of the Georgian statesmen has left its mark on our policy ever since.
In struggling for peace and for the sanctity of treaties, even though the struggle was one of selfish interest, England took a ply which she has never wholly lost. Warlike and imperious as is her national temper, she has never been able to free herself from a sense that her business in the world is to seek peace alike for herself and for the nations about her, and that the best security for peace lies in her recognition, amidst whatever difficulties and seductions, of the force of international engagements and the sanctity of treaties.
[Authorities. - Coxe's Life of Sir Robert Walpole, Horace Walpole's "Mehioirs of the Reign of George II.," and Lord Hervey's amusing Memoirs from the accession of George II. to the death of Queen Caroline, give the main materials on one side; Bolingbroke's Letter to Sir William Wyndham, his "Patriot King," and his correspondence afford some insight into the other. Horace Walpole's Letters to Sir Horace Mann give a minute account of his father's fall. A sober and judicious account of the whole period may be found in Lord Stanhope's "History of England from the Peace of Utrecht."]
At home the new King's accession was followed by striking political results. Under Anne the throne had regained much of the older influence which it lost through William's unpopularity; but under the two sovereigns who followed Anne the power of the Crown lay absolutely dormant. They were strangers, to whom loyalty in its personal sense was impossible; and their character as nearly approached insignificance as it is possible for human character to approach it. Both were honest and straightforward men, who frankly accepted the irksome position of constitutional kings. But neither had any qualities which could make their honesty attractive to the people at large. The temper of George the First was that of a gentleman usher; and his one care was to get money for his favourites and himself. The temper of George the Second was that of a drillsergeant, who believed himself master of his realm while he repeated the lessons he had learnt from his wife, and which his wife had learnt from the Minister. Their Court is familiar enough in the witty memoirs of the time; but as political figures the two Georges are almost absent from our history. William of Orange had not only used the power of rejecting bills passed by the two Houses, but had kept in his own hands the control of foreign affairs.
Anne had never yielded even to Marlborough her exclusive right of dealing with Church preferment, and had presided to the last at the Cabinet Councils of her ministers. But with the accession of the Georges these reserves passed away. No sovereign since Anne's death has appeared at a Cabinet Council, or has ventured to refuse his assent to an Act of Parliament. As Elector of Hanover indeed the King still dealt with Continental affairs: but his personal interference roused an increasing jealousy, while it affected in a very slight degree the foreign policy of his English counsellors. England, in short, was governed not by the King, but by the Whig ministers of the Crown. Nor had the Whigs to fear any effective pressure from their political opponents. "The Tory party," Bolingbroke wrote after Anne's death, "is gone." In the first House of Commons indeed which was called by the new King, the Tories hardly numbered fifty members; while a fatal division broke their strength in the country at large.
In their despair the more vehement among them turned to the Pretender. Lord Oxford was impeached and sent to the Tower; Bolingbroke and the Duke of Ormond fled from England to take office under the son of King James. At home Sir William Wyndham seconded their efforts by building up a Jacobite faction out of the wreck of the Tory party. The Jacobite secession gave little help to the Pretender, while it dealt a fatal blow to the Tory cause. England was still averse from a return of the Stuarts; and the suspicion of Jacobite designs not only alienated the trading classes, who shrank from the blow to public credit which a Jacobite repudiation of the debt would bring about, but deadened the zeal even of the parsons and squires; while it was known to have sown a deep distrust of the whole Tory party in the heart of the new sovereign. The Crown indeed now turned to the Whigs; while the Church, which up to this time had been the main stumbling-block of their party, was sinking into political insignificance, and was no longer a formidable enemy. For more than thirty years the Whigs ruled England. But the length of their rule was not wholly due to the support of the Crown or the secession of the Tories. It was in some measure due to the excellent organization of their party.