Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by W. Wallace
Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1655–1716)
 
[Andrew Fletcher, commonly styled “Scottish patriot,” was born at Saltoun, in East Lothian, in 1653. Partially educated by Gilbert (afterwards Bishop) Burnet, he had made the tour of the Continent before, at the age of twenty-three, he took his seat in the Scottish Convention of Estates in 1678. He at once became noted for his opposition to the Government of Lauderdale, resolutely maintained the same attitude towards Lauderdale’s successor, the Duke of York, and left the country on the condemnation of Argyll. Fletcher spent the six years between 1682 and the Revolution in exile, being heard of in Brussels, Paris, and Holland. Although he disapproved of Monmouth’s mad expedition against James, he thought it his duty to attach himself to it. But having killed a man at Lyme, soon after landing in England, he had to flee at once, and betook himself to Spain. In 1686 he was, in absence, sentenced to death for treason, nor did he take advantage of the amnesty which was proclaimed in the same year. He did not return to Scotland till 1688, when he accompanied William of Orange from the Hague. Two years later he again entered the Scottish Parliament, and spent the remainder of his public life in the vehement assertion of his country’s rights against English ascendancy. He struggled hard to prevent the legislative Union with England, and when it was accomplished he retired to his estate, and devoted himself to the improvement of agriculture. He died in London in 1716.]  1
 
FLETCHER is memorable rather as a man of affairs, than as a writer. He published nothing till he had lived an exceptionally full and active life of forty-seven years, and then only a few practical disquisitions on politics. He was indeed a politician from first to last, and wrote only for the express purpose of furthering his own numerous schemes. Among his contemporaries, Fletcher stands out as the pre-eminently honest man. Tinged as their estimates are by their several prejudices, all the historians of his period unite in assigning to him what Hume terms “signal probity.” Wodrow eulogises the “sobriety, temperance, and good management” of his private life. His whole career was, beyond question, a testimony to his singleness of purpose. His chief end was what he believed to be for the good of Scotland,—free government by her own parliament unfettered by a royal prerogative, which meant the veto of English ministers,—and his reward was exile, forfeiture, and conspiracy against his life. Burnet, his old tutor, gives the popular English estimate of Fletcher when he describes him as “a Scotch gentleman of great parts and many virtues, but a most violent Republican and extremely passionate.” A hot temper he must be allowed, but his “violent Republicanism,” would probably be termed moderate constitutionalism at the present time. He was in truth a Scottish patriot of the old school, almost the last of the race, fighting vainly and, it must be confessed, blindly against the fusion of his country with its larger and richer neighbour. “A gentleman of good estate in Scotland, attended with the improvements of a good education” (Rawlinson MS.), he entered public life at a time when Scotland was beyond all question suffering severely from the union of the Crowns. Of the alternative cures for these evils, he at once gave his voice for that which, by restoring the power of the Scottish Parliament, would, at the same time, induce the nobles to spend their wealth at home and place Scotch trade once more on the footing from which it had been driven by English restrictions. And in the advocacy of a free, as opposed to an incorporating union, Fletcher spent his life. Altogether an interesting personality this “low thin man of a brown complexion, full of fire, with a stern, sour look,” with his quick irascibility, his “large thoughts as to religion,” his repute for learning, his noted distrust of princes, and his great faith in the wisdom of parliaments. Fletcher wrote as he must have spoken, clearly and simply. Always full of his subjects, he strung his arguments in a plain sequence, using little or no rhetoric, and seeking no illustration except in history, from which he had extracted a marvellously sound philosophy. Comparison with his pedantic Scottish contemporaries lifts him high above them all in style, his distinguishing qualities being a just choice of words, neatness of construction, and a certain elegance, which is in itself evidence of the breadth of his culture. He has recourse to no passion as an aid to persuasion, except that of patriotism, and though he continually works upon the self-interest of his audience, the largeness and dignity of that interest at once save his theme from debasement and elevate the tone of his eloquence. He may be classed as a strenuous debater, rather than as an orator. His first published writing was A Discourse of Government with relation to Militias, which appeared in Edinburgh in 1698. It was a contribution to a controversy of the day, and a brief for a militia as against a standing army. It appeals to the Roman practice, and its contents may be gathered from one sentence “The subjects formerly had a real security for their liberty by having the sword in their own hands.” Two Discourses concerning the Affairs of Scotland were written in the same year (1698). The first protests against the over-taxation of Scotland, which was called upon to pay a land tax of £84,000 instead of its just assessment of £12,000. Fletcher opposes more particularly the grant of the land tax to the king for life and the expenditure of it in a standing army, both securities for liberty and property, the sword and the power of the purse, being thus at one stroke taken from the people. In the second Discourse, Fletcher broaches a project of enslaving the multitude of beggars and vagabonds who then infested Scotland—an idea, by the way, borrowed from him by Thomas Carlyle. Every man of a certain estate would take a certain number for domestic slaves, feed, clothe, and educate them, and be responsible for their lives; three or four hundred of the most notorious he coolly proposes to hand over to the State of Venice for service in the galleys “against the common enemy of Christendom.” The same Discourse ventilates an ingenious scheme, based on the prohibition of interest, for distributing the land among a greater number of possessors. To the year 1698 we owe also Discorso delle Cose de Spagna, scritto nel mese di Juglio 1698, first translated into English in the Glasgow edition of Fletcher, 1749. A Speech on the State of the Nation exhorts to resistance of the grasping power of France. Speeches by a Member of Parliament are a collection of the orations delivered by Fletcher in the parliament which began on the 6th of May 1703. Their general theme is the necessity for an Act of Security, and for farther limitation of the royal prerogative. He comes at last to the pitch of preferring separation to the continuance of the unlimited prerogative. Fletcher’s last authenticated composition is An account of a Conversation concerning a Right Regulation of Governments for the Common Good of Mankind. It is the record of a talk between the author and the Earl of Cromarty and two Englishmen, Sir Edward Seymour and Sir Christopher Musgrave, for the most about Fletcher’s favourite topic, Scotland’s grievances and England’s tyranny. It contains the stock quotation from Fletcher, “I said I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Christopher’s sentiments (the knight having denounced the infamous ballads sung in London streets), that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he should not care who should make the laws of a nation.”  2
 
 
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