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The Politics of Bacon's History of Henry the Seventh

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


This article presents an interpretation of Francis Bacon's History of Henry the Seventh. Recently Bacon's History has been described in terms of its role in transmitting paradigms of republican thought to Harrington, whose “classical republicanism” so importantly influenced later English and American political thought. Thus Bacon, who was of course not himself a republican, is now described as having contributed to the classical republican doctrine of civic virtue. I argue that the History in no way fits such republican paradigms, or that it can only insofar as Bacon's essential teaching in that work is misunderstood. Rather than unwittingly pointing to some conception of civic virtue, Bacon's History self-consciously describes modern politics as grounded on the inescapable necessity of material acquisition. I argue that Bacon's politics are modern because they look to the conquest of nature and are critical of all specific political attachments, including republicanism.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1990

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1. Beginning with Wilhelm Busch's judgment that in writing the History Bacon was indifferent to the historical facts. See Busch, Wilhelm, England Under the Tiidors, trans. Todd, Alice M. (New York: Burt Franklin), pp. 416–23.Google Scholar

2. See Pocock's, J. G. A. magisterial work The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 355, 357;Google Scholar see also Harrington, James, The Political Works of James Harrington, ed. Pocock, J. G. A. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) 15, 4345, 5056 (these pages are taken from Pocock's rich historical introduction, which runs from pp. 1 to 152).Google Scholar

3. Pocock, , Moment, pp. 349–60;Google ScholarLevy, F. J., Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1976), pp. 237–51, 252–68;Google Scholar and Burke, Peter, “Tacitism,” in Tacitus, ed. Dorey, T. A. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp.149–71.Google Scholar The relation between “Tacitism” and the actual thought of Tacitus does not concern us here. What counts for the present argument is what the historians say Tacitism was, and whether it is a useful category for grasping Bacon's political thought.

4. Pocock, , Moment, pp. 183218.Google Scholar

5. Ibid., pp. 176, 199–200, 204–11, 386–87, 390–91; Harrington, , Political Works, pp. 239, 456–57, 688.Google Scholar

6. Harrington, , Political Works, pp. 659–60; 5051;Google Scholar see 157–58,195–98, 201–203. The “Tacitean” prince was characteristically suspicious, or jealous, because the men he ruled were corrupted by the fallen world in which they lived. Pocock, , Moment, pp. 351–52, 384–89.Google Scholar See Bacon, Francis, The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. Spedding, James, Ellis, Robert Leslie, and Heath, Douglas Denon, 14 vols. (London: Longman and Co., et al., 18571874), 6: 92, 97, 243–44.Google Scholar

7. Pocock, , Moment, pp. 357, 386.Google Scholar

8. Bacon, , Works, 6: 444–52; cf. 92–97.Google Scholar

9. Harrington, , Political Works, pp. 157–59.Google Scholar

10. Unlike Machiavelli and Bacon, Harrington, who relied on English erudi- tion, applied this doctrine to a historical theory of feudalism. Harrington, , Political Works, pp. 4445;Google ScholarPocock, , Moment, pp. 384–95.Google Scholar

11. Bacon, , Works, 6: 445–47;Google ScholarMachiavelli, , Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio 2:10, in Tittle le opera di Nicolo Machiavelli (Rome: Mondadori Editore, 1968), V. Primo, pp. 256–59.Google Scholar

12. Pocock, , Moment, pp. 436–46.Google Scholar

13. Jefferson, Letter to John Trumbull, 15 February 1789, in Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984), pp. 939–40;Google ScholarRousseau, , Discours sur les sciences et sur les arts (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), p. 29;Google ScholarKant, , Kritik der reinen Vernuft (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1956), p. 2;Google ScholarNietzsche, , Ecce Homo: Why I Am So Clever, 4 (New York: Vintage, 1969), pp. 245–47.Google Scholar

14. Works, 3: 473–76.Google Scholar God's government of the world and the soul's government of the body are obscure and curiosity regarding them is punishable. Even here, however, regarding the “general rules and discourses of policy and govern- ment there is a due and reverent handling.” But regarding “governors toward the governed all things ought, as far as the frailty of man permitteth, to be manifest and revealed.”

15. Works, 6: 30, 32, 36, 43.Google Scholar

16. Ibid., pp., 92, 505–506.

17. Works, 3: 333–35.Google Scholar

18. Works, 4: 25.Google Scholar

19. Works, 3: 336–37; Virgil Aeneid 3.96. This is the Delian Oracle's charge to Aeneas to seek out the land that bore the Trojans. This turns out to be Italy, a new world where Aeneas’ lineage will rule over all lands.Google Scholar

20. Works, 3: 339–40.Google Scholar

21. Ibid., pp. 301–302; 4: 113–15.

22. Works, 6: 2933, 36.Google Scholar

23. Ibid., p. 31.

24. Ibid., pp. 31, 41–42.

25. Ibid., p. 32; cf. p. 243.

26. Ibid., pp. 94, 130–31, 140, 168–70, and 242, where Bacon says this [nonpartisan] policy toward the nobility was “one of the causes of his troublesome reign” because while the nobles remained loyal, they did not cooperate with him. See also p. 160. Pocock, , Moment, pp. 351–52.Google Scholar

27. Works, 6: 4243.Google Scholar

28. Ibid., pp. 44, 243.

29. Ibid., pp. 45–59, 67–68.

30. Ibid., pp. 31, 41–42, 60.

31. Ibid., p. 31.

32. Ibid., p. 32; see also pp. 160, 240, 243.

33. Ibid., pp. 27–29.

34. Ibid., pp. 67–68, 86–88, 93–95.

35. Ibid., p. 59.

36. Ibid., pp. 81–82, 88–90, 92, 119–121, 129–131. On Henry's supposed greed, and bending of the law to that end, see pp. 40, 130–31, 155, 217–20, 225, 235–36, 239–40.

37. Ibid., pp. 132–40.

38. Ibid., pp. 140–58.

39. Ibid., p. 144; see p. 242.

40. Ibid., pp. 149–53.

41. Ibid., p. 152–53.

42. Ibid., p. 153.

43. Ibid., pp. 156–58.

44. Ibid., pp. 167–71.

45. Ibid., p. 172.

46. Ibid., pp. 175–83.

47. Ibid., pp. 183, 239.

48. Ibid., pp. 188–96, 198–205.

49. Ibid., p. 201; see pp. 202–203.

50. Ibid., pp. 92, 239.

51. Ibid., p. 27.

52. See note 37, above. Henry promised in his will to return what he had taken illegally. But this changed nothing for the nobility and was not relevant for the people. See Works, 6: 237.Google Scholar

53. See for example the case of the Earl of Suffolk, Works, 6: 220222.Google Scholar

54. See note 12, above. I say “seems” because I would argue that in fact Bacon's judgment on this point—that money and not virtue is the ultimate source of military strength—is also Machiavelli's. In other words, wherever “classical republicanism” came from, it was not from a correct understanding of Machiavelli. But that is another long story.

55. It is true that Harrington, who wanted to have his cake and eat it, had a place for commerce and expansion, and for mechanized constitutionalism. But his “dominant purpose is the release of personal virtue through civic participation.” On this score Pocock is correct. But then so far is Harrington's conception of individuality and independence from Bacon's that they could share the same paradigm only if a paradigm, like an acid, can corrode even the most fundamental difference. Pocock, , Moment, pp. 391–94.Google Scholar

56. And perhaps he understood Machiavelli better than did Harrington or contemporary historians. Again, this is another story.

57. So in the New Atlantis we see a society fashioned by a great lawgiver-king, but in which the monarchy is practically invisible, with power emanating from “the state” and with real control vested in the masters of natural science. See Works, 3: 135, 144–47, 149, 154–56,165. Nothing could be less independent than the citizens in the new Atlantis of Bensalem.Google Scholar

58. Although Bacon explains that an accident prevented Henry from supporting Columbus’ expedition to the New World. Works, 6: 196–98.Google Scholar

59. Ibid., p. 238. Although by remarking that he was not superstitious “for those times,” Bacon reminds us that Henry was a Catholic.

60. Ibid., pp. 145–46, 163–64.

61. Discorsi 3. 6, V. Primo, pp. 350–51.

62. Works, 6: 470–72; 140, 145–46; cf. pp. 163–64.Google Scholar

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