The reign of Charles II. forms one of the most singular as well as of the most important periods of history. It is the era of good laws and bad government. The abolition of the court of wards, the repeal of the writ De Heretico Comburendo, the Triennial Parliament Bill, the establishment of the rights of the House of Commons in regard to impeachment, the expiration of the Licence Act, and, above all, the glorious statute of Habeas Corpus, have therefore induced a modern writer of great eminence to fix the year 1679 as the period at which our constitution had arrived at its greatest theoretical perfection; but he owns, in a short note upon the passage alluded to, that the times immediately following were times of great practical oppression. What a field for meditation does this short observation from such a man furnish! What reflections does it not suggest to a thinking mind upon the inefficacy of human laws and the imperfection of human constitutions! We are called from the contemplation of the progress of our constitution, and our attention fixed with the most minute accuracy to a particular point, when it is said to have risen to its utmost perfection. Here we are, then, at the best moment of the best constitution that ever human wisdom framed. What follows? A tide of oppression and misery, not arising from external or accidental causes, such as war, pestilence, or famine, nor even from any such alteration of the laws as might be supposed to impair this boasted perfection, but from a corrupt and wicked administration, which all the so much admired checks of the constitution were not able to prevent. How vain, then, how idle, how presumptuous is the opinion that laws can do everything! and how weak and pernicious the maxim founded upon it, that measures, not men, are to be attended to.
The first years of this reign, under the administration of Southampton and Clarendon, form by far the least exceptionable part of it; and even in this period the executions of Argyle and Vane and the whole conduct of the Government with respect to church matters, both in England and in Scotland, were gross instances of tyranny. With respect to the execution of those who were accused of having been more immediately concerned in the king's death, that of Scrope, who had come in upon the proclamation, and of the military officers who had attended the trial, was a violation of every principle of law and justice. But the fate of the others, though highly dishonourable to Monk, whose whole power had arisen from his zeal in their service, and the favour and confidence with which they had rewarded him, and not, perhaps, very creditable to the nation, of which many had applauded, more had supported, and almost all had acquiesced in the act, is not certainly to be imputed as a crime to the king, or to those of his advisers who were of the Cavalier party. The passion of revenge, though properly condemned both by philosophy and religion, yet when it is excited by injurious treatment of persons justly dear to us, is among the most excusable of human frailties; and if Charles, in his general conduct, had shown stronger feelings of gratitude for services performed to his father, his character, in the eyes of many, would be rather raised than lowered by this example of severity against the regicides. Clarendon is said to have been privy to the king's receiving money from Louis XIV.; but what proofs exist of this charge (for a heavy charge it is) I know not. Southampton was one of the very few of the Royalist party who preserved any just regard for the liberties of the people; and the disgust which a person possessed of such sentiments must unavoidably feel is said to have determined him to quit the king's service, and to retire altogether from public affairs. Whether he would have acted upon this determination, his death, which happened in the year 1667, prevents us now from ascertaining.
After the fall of Clarendon, which soon followed, the king entered into that career of misgovernment which, that he was able to pursue it to its end, is a disgrace to the history of our country. If anything can add to our disgust at the meanness with which he solicited a dependence upon Louis XIV., it is, the hypocritical pretence upon which he was continually pressing that monarch. After having passed a law, making it penal to affirm (what was true) that he was a papist, he pretended (which was certainly not true) to be a zealous and bigoted papist; and the uneasiness of his conscience at so long delaying a public avowal of his conversion, was more than once urged by him as an argument to increase the pension, and to accelerate the assistance, he was to receive from France. In a later period of his reign, when his interest, as he thought, lay the other way, that he might at once continue to earn his wages, and yet put off a public conversion, he stated some scruples, contracted, no doubt, by his affection to the Protestant churches, in relation to the popish mode of giving the sacrament, and pretended a wish that the pope might be induced by Louis to consider of some alterations in that respect, to enable him to reconcile himself to the Roman church with a clear and pure conscience.