The Rise of the Glorious Merchants


In the 1670s, after restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England, some merchants in the City of London grew increasingly worried over the prospect of a Catholic dynasty ruling England. In 1672, as part of his secret alliance with France against the Dutch, king Charles II issued the royal Declaration of Indulgence, suspending all penal laws against Catholics. Moreover, his brother James, Duke of York, converted to Catholicism and married Italian and Catholic Princess Mary of Modena. Given that king Charles II had no legitimate offspring, this presented a prospect of a Catholic dynasty ruling England in the near future. When the news about the Declaration of Indulgence went viral, England was gripped by anti-Catholic hysteria. Titus Oates, a priest of the Anglican Church, alleged falsely that there existed a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate the king, which led to the executions of at least 22 innocent people. The purpose of Oates' provocation was to give pretext to the English parliament to introduce the Exclusion Bill and exclude James, Duke of York, from succession. King Charles II retaliated by dissolving the Parliament in 1681, which in turn prompted the leaders of the opposition, the Whigs, the new merchant elites that engaged in transatlantic trade and slavery, to flee to the Netherlands. There, they joined the band of British Protestant exiles and together they started to conspire against the king at the court of William of Orange.

William, Prince of Orange, Stadholder of the United Provinces, participated with success in several wars against the powerful Catholic king of France, Louis XIV, and was the leading champion of Protestantism in Europe. Due to political instability on the European Continent, plans had already been drafted to merge the interest of the two mercantile republic and transfer the capital of the Amsterdam Jews to London. Oliver Cromwell had already prepared the ground by giving the Jews his formal invitation in 1655. Further steps to cement the Anglo-Dutch alliance were made through the marriage of William of Orange to Mary Stuart, the eldest daughter of James, Duke of York, arranged in 1677 by an English diplomat, William Temple. A year later, in 1668, William Temple went to the Hague and afterwards brought with him his Observations Upon the United Provinces where he outlined the reasons for the economic miracle of the country.67 He mentioned lower customs, free markets and credits, urbanised and liberal population and more businessmen involved in government. In particular, Amsterdam had developed commercial satisfaction far beyond any other market in Europe due to the number of Jews that were engaged in trade and banking. William Temple visited the bank in Amsterdam and spoke with awe of its 'greatest treasure...that is known anywhere in the world...bars of gold and silver, plate and infinite bags of metal, which are supposed to be all gold and silver'.68 But above all the real power of Amsterdam lay in the credit which allowed trade to move more freely. By comparison, the City of London did not permit free trade. The companies still needed to seek royal approval for their charters. Thus, the Whigs held an opinion that in order to repeat the success of Amsterdam, the City of London needed to get rid of the Catholic monarch, bring over more Jews with their capital and liberate trade.

King Charles II knew that the City of London was a stronghold of Republicanism and potential source of trouble for the royals. Therefore, in 1682, the King's Bench issued a writ of Quo Warranto against the City of London. This led to the Charter of the City being forfeited and the Corporation of London being dissolved, reducing the city to the legal status of a small village.69 Quo Warranto writs had often been used to regulate liberties and franchises such as the right to hold a fair or a market. It was claimed that the City of London had breached its Charter by allowing the collection of tolls at market and by publishing a seditious petition against the King and Government. After the Charter was forfeited the King issued a new one giving him the right to appoint and remove officers, including the Mayor, Sheriffs, Recorder, Common Sergeant, Justices of the Peace and Coroner, thus allowing him direct control over the government of the City. The loss of the Charter prompted the surviving Whigs to plan an insurrection against king Charles II. Robert West, a barrister of the Middle Temple had been made privy in the Temple to a secret plan to assassinate the king and his brother Duke of York. It was scheduled to take place on their way back from horseraces at Newmarket to London.70 The plan provided that the party would hide in the Rye House, a fortified mansion in Hertfordshire occupied by one of the conspirators, a Cromwellian soldier named Richard Rumbold, from whence they would launch an insurrection. One of key persons involved in the plot, Lord William Russell, was an MP who travelled widely on the Continent and was connected by marriage to the exiled leader of the Whigs and lawyer of Lincoln's Inn, Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury. William Russell and Earl of Shaftesbury were in turn associated with James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of king Charles II, an excellent soldier with his own political ambitions.

The Whigs commissioned two men, Algernon Sidney and John Lock to provide legal justification for curbing the power of the monarchy. Algernon Sidney had conspiracy in his blood. A Colonel in the Cromwell's Army and later politician and ambassador, he was a direct descendant of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, an admiral who led the government of the young King Edward VI from 1550 until 1553, and was involved in conspiracy to install Lady Jane Grey on the English throne. In the late 1670s, Algernon Sidney wrote a work called Discourses Concerning Government, where he criticized absolute monarchy outlining what he believed constituted a valid civil government. Sidney wrote that the individuals have the right to choose their own form of government and that, if that government became corrupt, the people retained the power to abolish it and form another. In his own words, "God leaves to man the choice of forms in government ... He who institutes, may also abrogate.”71 Another supporter of the Whigs, John Lock, was an Oxford academic and secretary to Earl of Shaftesbury, the founder of the Whigs. Shaftesbury used Lock “as a friend and consult with him on all occasions ...entrusted him with secret negotiations raise that spirit in the nation which was necessary against the prevailing Popish party.”72 Both, Earl of Shaftesbury and John Lock had investments in overseas plantations and slave trade. Lock had investments in Royal African Company, which specialized in slave trade, and was a member of the Royal Society, aka the Solomon House. Lock had already some experience in devising government for the propriety classes as he earlier drafted the Fundamental Constitutions of North Carolina, where set up a feudal-type aristocracy, in which eight barons would own 40 per cent of land, and where only a baron could be a governor.73 Prompted by Shaftesbury, Lock composed around 1660, the bulk of the Two Treatises of Government. Therein he referred to “state of nature”, claiming that all men are created equal by God and that the only legitimate governments are those that have the consent of the people, thus introducing the concept of a “social contract”, which became the main rhetoric of the Whig party. “The people” who were supposedly at the heart of the Lock's theory of people's sovereignty were defined later by a British member of Parliament: “I don't mean the mob...I mean the middling people of England, the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentleman...”74

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67 William Temple, Observations Upon the United Provinces (Printed for Jacob Tonfon within Grey's Inn Gate next Grey's Inn Lane and Awnfham and John Churchill at the Black Swan in Pater-Nofter Row, 1705) »

68 Patrick Dillon, The Last Revolution. 1688 and the Creation of the Modern World (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), p. 41 »

69 London Metropolitan Archives, Charters of the City of London with related papers, 1067-1980 »

70 William Cobbett, David Jardine, Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings For High Treason And Other Crimes and Misdemeanors From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Vol. IX, Comprising the Period From the Thirty Fourth Year of the Reign of King Charles The Second, A.D. 1682, to the Thirty Sixth Year of the Said Reign, A.D., 1684 (London: R. Bagshow, 1811), p. 389 »

71 Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (London, 1698), Chap. I, Sec. VI »

72 John Lock (author), Peter Laslett (ed.), Two Treaties of Government (Cambridge University Press,1988), Introduction, p. 26 »

73 Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p. 47 »

74 Ibid., p. 74 »