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Charles Montagu, 1661-1715


Earl of Halifax. Innovative finance minister; principal patron and lifelong friend of Sir Isaac Newton; founded the Bank of England; `common-law' husband of Isaac Newton's niece.

Entered Westiminster School, 1675; Trinity College, Cambridge, 1679; formed a lifelong friendship with Isaac Newton [1] at Trinity; he and Newton failed in attempting to form a philosophical society at Cambridge, 1685; Wrote a book eulogizing Charles II that made him known throughout London, wrote another well received poem with Matthew Prior `The Hind and the Panther transverse'd to the Story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse', 1687; signed the letter of invitation to William, prince of Orange and joined the prince upon his landing, 1688; parliament representing Maldon, 1689-1695; purchased a clerkship on the privy council, 1689; chairman of important House of Commons committees, became known as a great debater;

Lord of the treasury, 1692; had the government borrow a large amount which became the basis of the English national debt, 1692; liquor taxes were to pay off the loan; borrowed heavily again to finance war with France, formed the Bank of England corporation so that the lenders could treat their loan to the government as part of their capital, and to secure the interest by guaranteeing taxes (the Tonnage Bill), 1694; Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1694; privy council, 1694; Commissioner of Greenwich Hospital, 1695;

With Locke, Newton, and Halley, devised a plan to stabilize the currency by, among other things, creating new coins that were harder to counterfeit, 1695; instituted the `window tax' to pay for new mint; issued negotiable interest-bearing paper (bonds); since this time the British government has obtained its money via `Exchequer bills'; consolidated the government loans into one General Mortgage, 1696; re-coinage complete, 1699;

First lord of the treasury, 1697; lord justice in the absence of the king, 1698-1699; assailed on all sides by opponents of his success, 1699; removed from House leadership, resigned chancellor of the exchequer and lord treasurer, 1699; survived impeachment attempt in House of Lords for his position on the Partition Treaty, 1701 (this apparently involved Ireland, who was Christopher Montagu?); lawyers and hearings all around that went nowhere;

On commission for negotiating union with Scotland, 1706; Upon death of queen Anne, was one of lord justices until arrival of George I, 1713; first lord of the treasury, 1714;

He was apparently quite arrogant; was president of the Royal Society 1695-1698; financially supported Newton, Congreve, Addison, Prior, and Stepney (his scientific patronage was scorned by Pope in his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot'); Swift claimed he only provided `good words and good dinners';

His wife died in 1698, and he had a long-term relationship with Catherine Barton , Isaac Newton's niece (some historians have concluded that they were privately married).


He was chairman of the House committee on records, and apparently suggested forming a public library based on the Cotton collection (the Cotton collection had a unique impact on history, and was also where Beowulf was found...)


Voltaire wrote:

`I thought in my youth that Newton made his fortune by his merit. I supposed that the Court and the City of London named him Master of the Mint by acclamation. No such thing. Isaac Newton has a very charming niece, Madame Conduitt, who made a conquest of the minister Halifax. Fluxions and gravitation would have been of no use without a pretty niece.'

 

This needs to be tempered with the fact that Voltair and the Montagus had a number of public intellectual disputes.


An extract from a letter of Edmund Halley to Isaac Newton. Halley is the astronomer for which Halley's Comet is named. Newton had been appointed Warden of the Mint, and Halley was managing the casting of bullion; he had been accused of cheating on the composition of the melt. Apparently the accusation was mostly political and nothing came of it...

"If need be, I begg you would interpose your protection, until we can be informed of any sort of accusation, and that we may be heard before we are in any case judged. I hope your potent friend Mr Montague will not forgett me if their should be any occasion, but am conscious to myself of no transgression, so I doubt not to acquit myself of any imputations their malice can invent..." (Halley, in Cook)


One description of Newton's niece:

"Catherine Barton, the elegant daughter of Newton's half-sister, was a close friend of Jonathan Swift, a toast of the Kit-Kat Club and a very intimate companion of Newton's patron, the Earl of Halifax, from whom she received a considerable inheritance. ... Halley, close to Newton... was probably in Catherine's circle. Catherine would entertain Newton's visitors from abroad... She made a great impression on the foreign guests of the Royal Society..." (Cook)

Cook notes a Kit-Kat club verse about Catherine, included in a book of poetry by John Dryden, that starts:

At Barton's feet the God of Love
His arrows and his Quiver lays
Forgets he has a Throne above
And with this lovely Creature stays


Historian George Macauly Trevelyan summarizes the impact of Charles:
"The great achievement of the Whig ministers was the institution of the modern system of finance with which England has since fought all her great wars of European security and colonial expansion. The Bank of England was established in connexion with the National Debt, against the opposition of the Tories, who were jealous of the monied interest. A regular method of Government borrowing was thus set up, which enabled a King who could not tax his subjects at will, to outlast the resources of a despot whose subjects had but little for him left to take. ... The Whig leaders of the rising generation, Somers and Montague, in close consultation with the Whig philosophers, Newton and Locke, effected these great measures, which they had devised by their own science and wisdom... Under this new leadership, the wisdom of the Whigs saved the State which had so often been shaken by their folly." (George Macaulay Trevelyan)

Sources:
[DNB].
The Sir Isaac Newton Homepage
Matthew Prior's quotations in Bartlett's
Edmond Halley, Alan Cook.
England Under the Stuarts, George Macaulay Trevelyan.

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