Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, a British statesman, born in London, Dec. 5, 1G61, died May 21,1724. He was of an old Puritan family of Herefordshire, his father and grandfather having taken arms on the parliamentary side in the civil war, although they subsequently favored the restoration. He made his first appearance in public life in 1G88 as a supporter of the prince of Orange, in whose behalf he aided his father in raising a body of horse. He entered the first parliament which met after the revolution, and for a time acted with the most ultra section of the whigs. Subsequently, however, from being an intolerant and vindictive whig he became an equally intolerant high churchman and tory. He gained the confidence of both dissenters and churchmen, who combined in February, 1701, to elect him speaker of the house of commons. He was chosen to the same office in the two succeeding parliaments, but resigned it in 1704 upon being appointed secretary of state. His promotion was due, according to the account given by the duchess of Marlborough, to the exertions of Miss Abigail Hill, whom he subsequently assisted in becoming Mrs. Masham, and whose influence with Queen Anne was considerable.
Godolphin, Marlborough, and the whigs lost no opportunity of weakening Har-ley's power, and in this were favored by the discovery that one of his clerks named Gregg was carrying on a secret correspondence with the French court. Although there was no evidence of the complicity of Harley in this matter, and Gregg signed a paper exculpating him, he became the object of so much popular odium that the queen was constrained in 1708 to dismiss him. In August, 1710, the whigs went out of office, and he was appointed chancellor of the exchequer. The attempt of a French abbe, Guiscard, to assassinate him in March, 1711, caused a popular reaction in his favor; and upon his recovery from his wounds, which were slight, he received the congratulations of both houses of parliament. In May he was created earl of Oxford and Mortimer and appointed lord high treasurer of Great Britain. He was now at the height of his power; the whole direction of affairs was in his hands; the Marlborough party was completely discomfited, while his own influence with the queen was constantly increasing; and to add to the eclat of his administration, the treaty of Utrecht was concluded in April, 1713. Soon after this the intrigues of Bolingbroke, his ministerial coadjutor and political associate, began to undermine his position; and on July 27, 1714, after a stormy session of the privy council, he received his dismissal.
He was treated with marked coldness at court on the accession of George I., and in August, 1715, was impeached by the house of commons for high treason and committed to the tower. He was attended thither by an immense multitude, crying, "High church and Oxford for ever!" After nearly two years' confinement he was brought to trial in June, 1717, on his own petition, and the house of commons not appearing to prosecute their impeachment, he was acquitted. The researches of Sir James Mackintosh among the Stuart papers prove that at this very time Harley was carrying on a treasonable correspondence with the pretender James at Versailles. He thenceforth lived in retirement. He left a library of books, pamphlets, and manuscripts of immense value. The manuscripts, amounting to nearly 8,000, and known as the Harleian collection, are now deposited in the British museum. This collection, as well as those of the books and pamphlets, the latter, it is said, numbering 400,000, was completed by Edward Harley, his son and successor.
The books and pamphlets were sold to T. Osborne for less than the cost of binding, and Dr. Johnson, Oldys, and Maittaire made a catalogue of them in 5 vols. 8vo (1743-5). From them was compiled "The Harleian Miscellany" of rare pamphlets, tracts, etc, with annotations by William Oldys (8 vols. 4to, 1744 - '6; enlarged, 13 vols. 4to, 1808). Harley's own writings, consisting of a "Letter to Swift on Correcting and Improving the English Tongue," an " Essay on Public Credit," an "Essay on Loans," a "Vindication of the Eights of the Commons of England," and other miscellaneous pamphlets, have little merit. A few days before his dismissal, he wrote, in a letter to the queen, an account of his own administration, which is published in Tindal's history and elsewhere. He was the intimate friend of Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, Parnell, Prior, and Gay, and aspired himself to the character of a wit and poet, sending to his friends verses which, Ma-caulay says, were "more execrable than the bellman's." Notwithstanding the important official stations he occupied, and his intimate relations with literary men, he was naturally slow of intellect, an awkward speaker, and possessed, according to Macaulay, " that sort of industry and that sort of exactness which would have made him a respectable antiquary or king-at-arms." According to the same authority, his influence in parliament was altogether out of proportion to his abilities; and his erudition, his gravity, his avoidance of show, and a certain affectation of mystery and reserve which he could assume on occasions, must account for the position he occupied during his long career.