Molesworth, Robert (1656–1725), 1st Viscount Molesworth, writer and politician, was born in Fishamble Street, Dublin, 7 September 1656, the posthumous and only child of Robert Molesworth, merchant and former royalist soldier, and Judith, elder surviving daughter of John Bysse (qv), recorder of Dublin (later chief baron of the exchequer).
Background and early life
Robert Molesworth senior came originally from Grimsby and served under his eldest brother, Guy, in the Irish army of the marquess of Ormond (qv) before the cessation of 1647. He subsequently obtained extensive lands in Meath and Dublin city through buying up adventurers’ debentures, and by 1653 was established as a merchant handling government contracts in Dublin. Although his grandfather, John Bysse, was Molesworth's official guardian, after his mother's remarriage to Sir William Tichborne in 1661 Molesworth was brought up largely near Drogheda with his half-brothers and sisters, the eldest of whom, Henry, remained a life-long friend. On Chief Baron Bysse's death in 1680 Molesworth inherited his estate at Brackdenstown (now Brackenstown) outside Swords, near Dublin, together with lands at Philipstown in King's County, and further land in Dublin. With his inheritance from his father, his estate now amounted to 6–7,000 acres, besides urban property in Dublin, whose total rental in 1688 was estimated at the substantial figure of £2,825.
Molesworth was educated privately till he entered Trinity College Dublin as a fellow commoner in October 1672; he graduated Bachelor of Arts in February 1675. His college contemporaries included William Molyneux (qv) and St George Ashe (qv). In July 1675 he entered Lincoln's Inn, London, where his grandfather John Bysse had studied, but he did not proceed to a legal career. On returning to Ireland he married Laetitia, third daughter of Richard Coote, 1st Baron Coloony, in August 1676, their eldest child being born the following February. From 1680 the family made their home at Brackdenstown, which was to remain Molesworth's principal residence for the rest of his life. The ensuing years were taken up with his duties as landowner, while a growing family of children was born, of whom eight sons and four daughters survived to adulthood; he served as justice of the peace (JP) of King's County, and JP and later (1680–81) high sheriff of the county of Dublin. During these years Molesworth remained linked to the Ormond interest, with which both his grandfather Baron Bysse and the Cootes were associated, and gave no indication of the radical whig position which he would adopt after the revolution. In 1684–8 he undertook a series of journeys in Italy, France, and the United Provinces, which are occasionally referred to in his writings. These travels brought Molesworth into contact with the prince and princess of Orange through his brother-in-law, Richard Coote (qv), now Lord Coloony, who entered Dutch service in 1687, took part in William's expedition to England, and was made treasurer to Queen Mary in March 1689. Some time in 1688 the Molesworths and their children took refuge in England from Tyrconnell's (qv) regime, and Molesworth acted as an intermediary with the prince's supporters in the midlands immediately before William's arrival in England in early November. Molesworth was included in the Irish Jacobite act of attainder of May 1689, and later claimed to have suffered considerable losses as a result of the Irish war, which reduced his rental to £1900.
Envoy to Denmark
His support for the Williamite cause presumably accounts for Molesworth's somewhat surprising appointment as envoy extraordinary to Denmark in May 1689. Given the ambivalent position of the northern powers in the war that had broken out between France and the grand alliance, this was a post of considerable importance, and his fellow British representatives in Scandinavia and northern Germany were mostly experienced diplomats. Preventing Denmark from aligning itself with France proved a frustrating experience, compounded by the corruption and vagaries of the Danish court. Molesworth's most visible success was the agreement negotiated in 1689 for a Danish force to serve in Ireland, which proved an important contribution to the Williamite victory; but a defensive alliance, which he concluded the following year, was repudiated by William. By the summer of 1692 Anglo–Danish relations were at crisis: only the destruction of the French fleet at La Hogue prevented Danish defection from the alliance. However, before returning temporarily to attend to his estates in Ireland, Molesworth was involved in a public quarrel with the leading Danish Francophile, Count Haxthausen. William, irritated by his diplomatic shortcomings, decided that Molesworth was too compromised to return to Denmark, which deprived him of the customary present granted to ambassadors taking formal leave of the Danish court.
Molesworth's first book An account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692 (1694), published anonymously in December 1693, was partly intended as revenge and partly to recoup his finances. The work provided a detailed description of the geography, economy, religious establishment, and recent political history of Denmark, and remained a standard account of the country well into the eighteenth century. Particular attention was given to the coup that established absolute monarchy in 1660, especially the cowardice shown on that occasion by the nobility. Molesworth hoped that this analysis of the demise of one of the few other surviving examples of the free Gothic constitution, once prevalent in much of Europe, would alert Englishmen to the threat of arbitrary rule. The crucial factor in the development of absolute government was the adoption of a standing army, a practice first introduced in France, where the monarchy also used it to extinguish traditional liberties at home. Smaller and poorer states, forced to adopt similar forms of government in order to defend themselves against the French, found the costs far higher. In Denmark the taxes needed to sustain the army beggared both the landowning nobility and the peasants, as well as choking trade and industry except near the capital. This analysis proved highly influential in the English controversy over the standing army in 1697–9, as some pamphlets explicitly acknowledged.
So critical an assessment of their country and government outraged the Danes. Failing to persuade William to ban the book and punish its author, the ambassador in London, Count Skeel, arranged for William King (1663–1712) to produce Animadversions on a pretended account of Denmark (1694). King's attack focused on Molesworth's supposedly offensive behaviour in Denmark and the whig views voiced in his preface, which advocated travel as the means of opening English eyes to the current threats to liberty and called for an end to clerical domination of the universities. Independent replies by Jodocus Crull and by Thomas Rogers also appeared in 1694, and an expanded French version of King's Animadversions was published as La deffense du Danemark at Cologne in 1696. Three further editions of the Account were brought out in 1694, and it was translated into French, German and Dutch, though not till 1977 did a version appear in Danish. Its publication transformed Molesworth into a public figure; henceforth he was frequently described as ‘the author of the Account of Denmark’.
Landowner and political writer
Deciding against participating in the Irish parliament of 1692, Molesworth concentrated on restoring his estates and reestablished his wife and family at Brackdenstown. Throughout the 1690s and beyond, however, he saw his future as lying in England, and by 1699 he had purchased an estate at Edlington, near Doncaster, in Yorkshire. Despite the support of Somers and Shrewsbury (qv), patrons of his brother-in-law, Richard Coote, now earl of Bellomont, Molesworth failed to obtain political office in William's reign, or later in Anne's, when he claimed to enjoy the goodwill of Sunderland, Godolphin, and Marlborough (qv). As can be seen from a sympathetic letter from Shrewsbury recommending his appointment to the excise commission in 1694, William regarded Molesworth as tactless and impetuous, though loyal to the revolution. In Anne's reign he was further hampered by the hostility of Prince George, though he may well have exaggerated the goodwill of the leading officeholders whom he canvassed for position.
In 1695 Molesworth had himself returned to the English parliament for the Cornish borough of Camelford through paternal family connections, while at the same time entering the Irish parliament as member for Dublin county. At Westminster his principles placed Molesworth among the more radical whigs, such as Lord Ashley, soon to become 3rd earl of Shaftesbury. In Dublin he found himself generally in sympathy with the administration of the lord deputy, Henry Capel (qv), but on occasion spoke in favour of ‘sole right’. His support of the new Irish lord chancellor, John Methuen (qv), in the 1697 session led to his appointment to the Irish privy council in August that year, and to rumours that he would be made a peer. He subsequently backed Methuen's vindication of Irish policy in the English commons in 1698, notably in defending his college friend William Molyneux against the commons’ inquiry into Molyneux's The case of Ireland, stated. However, Molesworth failed to get back into the English parliament during the remainder of William's reign.
Molesworth's growing interest in intellectual pursuits in the later 1690s may perhaps be linked to his lack of political success. On election to the Royal Society in 1698 he took an active role in its proceedings, though he had not participated in the Dublin Philosophical Society in the 1680s. In the later 1690s he became close friends with the 3rd earl of Shaftesbury and his protégé John Toland (qv). Following the earl's death in 1718, his correspondence with Molesworth, as published by Toland, revealed that Shaftesbury had sought Molesworth's advice on his marriage, as well exchanging radical political ideas with him. The laudatory depiction in Toland's preface greatly enhanced Molesworth's reputation as a philosopher and lover of liberty. Further light on his intellectual interests and sympathies came with the publication of five of his letters to Toland in the latter's Collected works of 1726.
The books that Molesworth brought out in the eighteenth century elaborated the major themes of the Account of Denmark: the key role of parliament in the defence of English liberty; the danger of standing armies; the link between political liberty and economic prosperity; and the need to inculcate Greek and Roman virtue in place of passive obedience. In 1711 he published a translation of François Hotman's Franco-Gallia of 1585 (a well-known Huguenot account of the growth of monarchical power in France), together with a preface calling for aristocratic defence of liberty in England. A second edition in 1721 included a much extended preface, which came to be regarded as the definitive formulation of Old Whig values, though he now treated the clergy in a more conciliatory fashion. In 1716 Molesworth published the poems of his recently deceased daughter Mary Monck (qv) with a dedication to the princess of Wales extolling the importance of female education. His final work, Some considerations for the promoting of agriculture and employing the poor (1723), was among the earliest agricultural publications to deal specifically with Ireland. It called for legislation to enforce English agricultural practices; the establishment of county agricultural schools; and a degree of religious toleration, including the payment of catholic priests. Little sympathy was shown, however, for the difficulties of small tenants and the rural poor.
Politician and peer
During Anne's reign Molesworth continued to sit in the Irish parliament, transferring to the borough of Swords, where he had a considerable, though not a decisive, interest. The control that he exercised at Philipstown was more substantial, since he succeeded in having his nominee returned there in the elections of both Anne's reign and George I's. In England Molesworth became a member for Lostwithiel in 1705, transferring to East Retford the following year, but he did not achieve reelection between 1708 and the queen's death. During the tory triumph of 1710–14 Molesworth was among the more conspicuous whigs in the Dublin parliament, being involved in the mayoralty dispute of 1711–13 and becoming a target of high church antipathy in the revived Irish convocation. The latter successfully pressed the Irish house of lords to demand Molesworth's removal from the privy council in January 1714 on the grounds of his anti-clerical comment at the lord lieutenant's levée to the effect that ‘they that have turned the world upside down are come hither also’ (Journals of the house of lords of the kingdom of Ireland, ii, 441).
Molesworth's political fortunes revived with the accession of George I, which saw him restored to the Irish privy council in October 1714, though he did not apparently resume his seat till 1719. In England he was appointed to the Board of Trade in November 1714, a post that he resigned in favour of his son John in December 1715. In 1715 he was returned for Mitchel in Cornwall, and his support for Sunderland's ministry over the Septennial Act brought him an Irish peerage in July 1716, with the title ‘Viscount Molesworth of Swords’. Not till July 1719 did he take his seat in the Dublin house, where he soon emerged as a champion of Irish interests, reviving an association with Archbishop William King (qv) that went back to the early part of Anne's reign. He was particularly active in opposing the 1720 Declaratory Act in both parliaments, and, against King's advice, engaged Toland to publish Reasons why an act for the better securing the dependency of Ireland should not pass (1720).
In 1720–21 Molesworth (along with other Irish members at Westminster such as Thomas Brodrick (qv) and John Trenchard (qv)) took a lead in pursuing those responsible for the South Sea Bubble fraud, in which he had himself suffered the loss of £2,000 of borrowed money. However, the widely held belief that he was responsible for writing the issues of Cato's letters which called for harsh punishment of the guilty directors was denied by Thomas Gordon in the collected edition of the letters in 1733. His election as rector of Glasgow University in 1721 was engineered by Ulster presbyterian students fearful of threatened infringements of their political and religious freedom, though when Molesworth failed to be elected for the popular constituency of Westminster in 1722 he was no longer in a position to intervene effectively on their behalf. However, a number of future Scottish academic luminaries, such as George Turnbull and William Wishart, continued to correspond with him.
After his 1722 defeat, Molesworth concentrated his energies on Ireland. In his final years he established an intellectual circle at Brackdenstown, now largely rebuilt, and with gardens remodelled by Alessandro Galilei. The Molesworth circle, as it is known, embraced both members of the Church of Ireland and protestant dissenters, including the philosopher Francis Hutcheson (qv), the Arbuckle brothers, John and James (qv), Edward Synge (qv) the younger, and other figures associated with the Dublin Weekly Journal, many of whose writings paid tribute to Molesworth's interest and encouragement. These last years also brought reconciliation with Jonathan Swift (qv), who had attacked him in 1714 as an atheist and libertine, but now paid tribute to Molesworth as an Irish patriot in A letter to the right honourable the Lord Viscount Molesworth (1724), the fifth of the ‘Drapier's Letters’.
Molesworth died at Brackdenstown on 22 May 1725 and was buried at Swords. He was succeeded, as 2nd viscount, by his eldest son, John, British envoy at Turin. On the latter's death without issue in February 1726, Molesworth's second son, Richard (qv), who had fought with distinction under Marlborough in the war of the Spanish succession, became the 3rd viscount. There is a half-length portrait of Robert Molesworth by Thomas Gibson, engraved by Peter Pelham, 1721, in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The Molesworth papers were dispersed following a sale in 1977, though a microfilm of the collection is held in the National Library of Ireland.