Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Another day at the office for Samuel Pepys

What Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary for February 3, 1665:
Up, and to the office very busy till 3 o’clock, and then home, all of us, for half an hour to dinner, and to it again till eight at night, stating our wants of money for the Duke, but could not finish it. So broke up, and I to my office, then about letters and other businesses very late, and so home to supper, weary with business, and to bed.
Sounds rather like the day I had yesterday. I never got around to stating my want of money to the duke either.

Pepys's diary is available daily here. For someone who tries to post daily, it's reassuring to see how dull the master diarist often is.

But the whole sequence has been interesting enough to send me to The Plot against Pepys, a recent British bestseller by the father-son writing team of James and Ben Long (review in The Independent here). In 1679 Pepys, no longer keeping a diary but still Charles II's Secretary of the Admiralty, was charged with treason. It was a political trial; Pepys, a beneficiary of the Restoration, was a strong supporter of Charles and his brother-heir the Duke of York, at a time when the leaders of Parliament were resisting Charles's autocratic ways, not least by whipping up popular hysteria over the Duke of York's Catholicism. The trumped-up charges against Pepys (he was accused of selling naval secrets to the French, with hints he was himself a secret Catholic) were merely a skirmish in the contest, though it did not seem like that to Pepys, who might well have been executied.

The Longs make a rather breathless and excitable tale out of the episode, as Pepys gradually discredits his accusers and the fury of the "Popish Plot" begins to abate. They are pro-Pepys and hence pro-Charles and monarchist without much grasp of the political and constitutional issues at stake. But even obliviously, they provide a vivid account of what a third-world polity Britain was just before its "Glorious" Revolution: venal political judges, arbitrary trials and execution, crude prejudices running free, corruption on all sides.

In 1679 the philosopher of government and founder of liberalism John Locke was serving the Whig leader the Earl of Shaftesbury -- one of Pepys's persecutors and a key villain for the Longs. Apparently Locke was drafting the Two Treatises on Government at the time. One can see why he thought they were needed.
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