Friday 5 February 1668/69

Up betimes, by coach to Sir W. Coventry’s, and with him by coach to White Hall, and there walked in the garden talking of several things, and by my visit to keep fresh my interest in him; and there he tells me how it hath been talked that he was to go one of the Commissioners to Ireland, which he was resolved never to do, unless directly commanded; for he told me that for to go thither, while the Chief Secretary of State was his professed enemy, was to undo himself; and, therefore, it were better for him to venture being unhappy here, than to go further off, to be undone by some obscure instructions, or whatever other way of mischief his enemies should cut out for him. He mighty kind to me, and so parted, and thence home, calling in two or three places — among others, Dancre’s, where I find him beginning of a piece for me, of Greenwich, which will please me well, and so home to dinner, and very busy all the afternoon, and so at night home to supper, and to bed.

11 Annotations

Robert Gertz   Link to this

Poor Coventry...The tragedy of a brilliant man who put his trust and entrusted his career in a false set of Princes. It seems, following his career through the Diary, he hoped to be Colbert to James' (future# Louis #or maybe even Agrippa to James' Augustus?# and set up a truly efficient administration under a benevolent autocrat...With talented young men like Sam forming the corps of administrators. The fatal flaw being at the top, it seems.

Robert Gertz   Link to this

And of course Colbert and others who hoped to do the same with Louis were likewise disappointed in the end. Yet the idea of the one man benevolent despot continues to hold appeal, through the horrors of the 20th century dictators (Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao) even to Star Trek's "Khan Noonien Singh"..."One man would have ruled alone in the end, a universal Rome...Think of its accomplishments." Blame it on Augustus, I guess...But it can be argued and well, I think, that Rome was better ruled and more flexible and energetic under the Republic, for all the claims of disorder and corruption.

Robert Gertz   Link to this

One is tempted to wonder though...What if Coventry had succeeded? Imagine how England's and the world's history might have been altered, I suspect for the worse.

Ralph Berry   Link to this

"One man who would rule alone...."

Singapore is not a bad example but unfortunately usually ultimate power seems to corrupt ultimately!!

Classicist   Link to this

The contrary has indeed been argued,R.G., but a majority of classical historians think that subjects of the Empire were very much better off than than the subjects of the Republic, at least until the third century. Republic governors plundered provinces; imperial ones just squeezed them.

languagehat   Link to this

"he hoped to be Colbert to James’ future Louis or maybe even Agrippa to James’ Augustus"

Or Plato to James's Dion of Syracuse. The lure of power, and the idea that if you're brilliant and persuasive enough you can convince a dictatorial ruler to rule wisely and bring about paradise on earth, has always been around and will never go away. (A particularly absurd twentieth-century example is Ezra Pound's thinking he could influence Mussolini through his Cantos.)

Robert Gertz   Link to this

I tend to suspect such classicist historians aren't taking the long view. Arguments about corruption and inefficiency are always in the fore when a dictator wishes to condemn republican or democratic rule (or when a historian is fatally attracted by such a man's legacy). The Republic's death stifled much political activity and prevented capable men from rising to positions of independent authority on their own, ended the reform movement toward more shared control in the government by the mass of the citizenry, as well as turning soldier-citizens who felt they had a stake in their government and state increasingly into professional soldiers and eventually, mercenaries and unwilling conscripts. That Augustus and the better emperors achieved some amazing successes in public works and the diffusion of Roman law and culture is true but it's at least to some extent the old "made the trains run on time" argument. We only know Caesar and his descendants, the emperors, argued that the Republic was hopelessly inefficient and corrupt...Perhaps...Perhaps a self-serving argument. We don't know if, given time and good leaders, the Republic might have healed itself and gone on to achieve much of what the emperors did, in my opinion, with added flexibility and greater resources of leadership and public spirit. To reconnect back to the Diary...Had Coventry succeeded and established a somewhat technocratic adminstration with successes in efficiency and public works winning support for James, the likely cripping of the movement towards Parliamentary rule would I think have been a serious retarding of the admittedly slow movement toward representative government and democracy all over Europe and in America. Good man, bad cause...Though Coventry probably dreaded an increase in representative government as an evil, leading to inefficiency, corruption, and at worst, mob rule.

Robert Gertz   Link to this

In any case, the slowly unfolding tragedy of William Coventry's career as reflected in the Diary has been one of the most fascinating aspects of his time Sam's given us.

Mark S   Link to this

RG, as someone who's major field of study for 30 years has been the classics, I have to say that however plausible your arguments may sound, they are not correct. Ask any professor of ancient history in any university. I loved your line about classical historians not taking the long view, by the way - it would raise a laugh in any Classics Dept staff room.

The Roman Republic was extremely corrupt, and had been getting steadily more and more corrupt for a century by the time it collapsed. It was being run by a very tiny, and very wealthy elite. It was really an oligarchy rather than a republic as we think of the term.

Under the early Empire, Roman citizenship with all its rights and privileges was extended to more and more people. Peace replaced constant civil wars and upheavals. Taxes became less arbitrary. Laws became more more just. Cities all over the Empire elected their own local officials and ran their own local affairs pretty independently.

This is a large subject, and there is no space here to go into any kind of detail, especially on an off-topic subject, but I suggest that you do some serious reading and research. You'll find that for most ordinary people in the Roman world, the early Empire represented a big increase in both personal rights and freedoms and in prosperity.

Sorry if this doesn't match the "Republic good, Empire bad" theme that we all learned in Star Wars.

Robert Gertz   Link to this

Mark, I agree it's not the place to expand. But I disagree (and am sorry you chose to take such a tone, it's this kind of thing that lead me in the first place to do my fun writing here, to encourage those who doubt their expertise to feel freer to speak out)...As I have done a lot of study in the field and with some fine historians. I simply don't fully accept the view on the Republic held by many. I don't say the issue is settled but in the long run my feeling remains that the Republic's continuation might have worked to better advantage though it's a debatable point...And I would point out you agree the later Empire did not continue as successfully, which tends to be the pattern with dictatorships/autocracies. Gibbon's opinion is well known but he was wrong about the 1000 year history of Byzantium after the West's fall and there's no need to patently accept his or his disciples' view on the Empire without question or debate. But if you care to continue feel free to email me, I love to debate points like this, so long as all opinions are respected.

languagehat   Link to this

I am not even a historian, let alone a classical historian, but for what it's worth, the more I've read about Roman history the more I've started to lean to Mark's view -- very reluctantly, I might add, because I grew up with the traditional rosy American view of the Roman republic. It was unbelievably corrupt and bloody, and arguments that it might have turned out better given time are, well, at worst implausible and at best unhelpful. We can never know how things would have turned out, only how they did.

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