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Robert Harley's 'middle way': the Puritan heritage in Augustan politics

David Hayton


THE character of Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford, was a puzzle to contemporaries and
has contmued to vex historians ever since. Harley's motives, objectives, principles (if
mdeed he had any) are of a piece with his notoriously difficult handwriting: often obscure
and sometimes quite indecipherable. Of course, for a successful politician, and Harley
was by any standards very successful, opacity could well be a deliberate ploy: a little
obfuscation might be just what was needed to disarm an aggrieved petitioner, or to fudge
a delicate issue in Parliament. Except that in Harley's case the obscuring process became
second nature. Some contemporaries considered it to be pathological. Lord Cowper
referred to ' that humour of his, which was, never to deal clearly or openly, but always
with reserve, if not dissimulation, or rather simulation; and to love tricks even where not
necessary'. In common with other hostile observers, Cowper regarded the 'humour' as
malignant: it grew 'from an inward satisfaction he took in applauding his own cunning'.

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