SIR WILLIAM TEMPLE was the son of Sir John Temple, master of the rolls, and privy-councillor in Ireland, in the reign of Charles II., and the grandson of the first Sir William Temple, secretary to the earl of Essex in the reign of Elizabeth. His father, early perceiving an eager thirst for knowledge, and indications of considerable strength of mind, used every means to promote these symptoms; consequently his advance in knowledge was rapid but sure. Having passed through the usual course of education, and acquired, in addition, an intimate acquaintance with the French and Spanish languages — which, at that time, were the most useful and important to a person of his station — he spent two years at Paris, and soon after made a tour through Holland, Flanders, and Germany, on his return from which, in 1654, he was united to the daughter of Sir Peter Osborne, governor of Jersey for Charles I., by which lady he had several children.
All offers of employment were rejected under the protector, but at the Restoration, in 1660, he quitted this privacy, and became a member of the convention in Ireland. Here, whilst others were by their pliant obsequiousness making assiduous court to the king, Sir William Temple exhibited a noble spirit of independence by his sturdy opposition to the Poll-bill, and his honourable refusal to listen to those who were sent to reason with him privately, and, if possible, divert him from his course of opposition. He declared, however, in reference to the bill, "that he would have nothing to say to it out of the house." In the succeeding parliament, he was chosen with his father, Sir John Temple, for the county of Carlow, when, by the acuteness of his judgment, his upright independence, and by his not permitting himself to be identified with any party, he acquired much influence in the house. The grand events of his political life were two important treaties which were committed to his charge, and which he accomplished with most masterly skill. The first of these was his astonishingly judicious, and dexterous bringing about of the triple league between England, Holland, and Sweden, at the latter end of 1665. This treaty, so effective in diminishing the threatening power of France, so important to the peace of Europe, was managed with a secrecy so uncommon, with success so unexpected, that the great statesman, De Wit, could not help complimenting him "with having the honour, which never any other minister had before him, of drawing the States to a resolution and conclusion in five days, upon a matter of the greatest importance, and an assistance of the greatest expence they had ever been engaged in, and all directly against the nature of their constitution, which enjoined them to have recourse to their provinces;" adding, that now it was done, it looked like a miracle.
The other treaty terminating in the marriage of the then prince of Orange to the lady Mary, daughter of the duke of York, and niece to is majesty, was far more durable in its nature and beneficial in its consequences, both to the security of the Protestant religion, and the general happiness of the British kingdoms. The several gradations in the progress of this were accomplished principally by Sir William Temple, whose secrecy and dexterity brought it to maturity, and effected its completion in the year 1677, even contrary to the will of the duke, and not very much to the inclination of the king. The work in itself was one of so much delicacy and difficulty, that it appears as if the slightest variation from the actual course of time and circumstances would have inevitably destroyed all hopes of success. Towards the conclusion, he used the assistance of the lord-treasurer Danby, afterwards duke of Leeds, who saw so much importance and happiness to the public connected with the result, that he afterwards declared in print, that he would not suffer that part of his services to be buried in oblivion.
Sir William Temple's freedom from ambition was evinced by his resolute opposition to the desire of his friends that he would permit them to request a peerage for him. He had, however, much difficulty in dissuading them, and was resolved, if the offer were made him, that the nobility should commence with either his father or his son, himself being anxious rather to avoid than possess such distinction. And much does it redound to his honour, that he with noble generosity refused in the year 1669 to assist in the undermining that work of peace and amity which he had, a few years previously, laboured so hard, and with success so distinguished, to establish. He felt that the obligations of his office bound him to what he clearly perceived to be the welfare of his country, and Europe at large, and not to the vacillating expediency of private interests: nor would he sacrifice his own approbation to secure that of his superiors. The usage he received on this account from the lord-treasurer, Clifford, was most unworthy and shameful; he was refused the payment of an arrear of two thousand pounds, due on his embassy. Disgusted by this, and the sudden extinction of Lord Arlington's friendship, an effect of the same cause, he retired to his house at Sheen, near Richmond, in Surrey, and devoted himself for a few years to the preparation of works. In this interval he published his Observations upon the United Provinces, and wrote the first part of his Miscellanies, which, with his other works, will be noticed presently. Meanwhile, the king preserved a neutrality, neither exerting propitiously his power, nor, on the other hand, showing any unkindness or hostility. It appears, indeed, from Sir William's letters, that the king made him a present of the plate belonging to his embassy, and disposed of his house on the continent, and the major part of his furniture to his successor, Sir George Downing. When, however, Charles grew weary of the war which ensued, he remembered Sir William Temple, and relying upon his willingness to act as the minister of peace, sent for him to go to Holland, and effect a treaty of peace. By the Spanish ambassador receiving proper powers, the journey to Holland was rendered unnecessary, and the treaty was concluded at home, in three days. In June, 1674, he was again sent ambassador into Holland, with offer of the king's mediation between France and the confederates, then at war, an offer which was not long after accepted; and Lord Berkeley, Sir William Temple, and Sir Leoline Jenkins were declared ambassadors and mediators, and Nimeguen fixed upon as the place of treaty. During this stay at the Hague commenced the intimacy with the prince of Orange, which led to the matrimonial contract above alluded to, and gave rise to an occurrence which Sir William ever regarded as one of the happiest of his life. One day, when the prince happened to be absent, five Englishmen were seized and brought to the Hague, and immediately tried and condemned for deserting their colours. Some of Sir William Temple's servants had the curiosity to visit the unfortunate prisoners, and came home horror struck by the Conviction that their countrymen were about to be slaughtered for an offence of which they were not guilty, and that innocent as they were, there was no shield to interpose between them and the too certain instrument of death. The earth was already opened to receive their bodies, and the next day's noon would find them numbered with the dead. Impelled at once with sympathy and terror, the servants besought their master to exert himself, and avert, if possible, the unjust doom to which these persons were consigned. Sir William omitted no effort of entreaty, but the lives of a few private and humble individuals, when weighed in the balance against the infallibility of a public judicial body, were made to kick the beam; their sentence could not be retracted; the evidence had been deemed conclusive; the men must die. One hope still remained, that that which their humanity denied might possibly be extorted from their fears. Sir William sent then to the officers with a threat that he would appeal to the prince and to the king, who would demand reparation, or rather wreak vengeance, if so many of his majesty's subjects were subjected to punishment so unjust. But even this succeeded no farther than to obtain a reprieve for a single day, in the course of which time Sir William managed to communicate with the prince, and procured the liberation of the prisoners. The feelings of the men carried them first, naturally enough, to visit the fresh-dug graves, whose mouths still yawned, expecting their bodies; then with a mingled sentiment of horror and gratitude, to cast themselves at the feet of Sir William Temple, and on their knees pour forth their thankfulness. It will easily be believed that in the retrospect of bygone years, Sir William must have felt, as he declared, this to have been the brightest, most joyous moment.
In the spring of the year 1678, Sir William Temple was called home to succeed Mr. Coventry in the office of secretary of state, but though the offer of the secretaryship was at his request withdrawn for a time, he did not return to Nimeguen that year. About this time occurred the marriage of the prince of Orange to the lady Mary, in allusion to which, Lord Arlington, rather ill-humouredly, remarked, that "some things were so ill in themselves that the manner of doing them could not mend them; and others so good that the manner they were done in could not spoil them; and that the prince of Orange's match was one of the last sort." The source of Lord Arlington's coldness to Sir William Temple is to be found in the early acquaintance of the former with the lord-treasurer, Danby; they had travelled together then young; they were related by marriage; Danby was now prime minister in Arlington's room: since then Danby and Temple were at difference with each other, it was impossible for Arlington to be the friend, and retain the good will of both. Hence the rupture between Temple and Arlington, which after occurrences tended to widen rather than close up.
The king would have engaged Sir William Temple in some negotiations with the crown of France, for which he was so little disposed that he requested the lord-treasurer to acquaint his majesty with his will to retire altogether, offering to resign all pretensions to the post of secretary of state, which had been in abeyance in consequence of some difficulties originating in Mr. Coventry. But when it was discovered that the French intended not to evacuate the Spanish towns, according to the stipulations of the treaty, the king commanded Sir William to act a third time as ambassador to the States, in which capacity he again visited Holland, and concluded a treaty, by which England was engaged, if those towns were not evacuated in forty days, to declare immediate war with France; but before the expiration of half the time, one Du Cross was sent from our court to Holland, on a mission which damped the good humour that treaty had produced, and destroyed the life and activity with which affairs were then moving. Sir William Temple had seen too much of the baseness of courts to be much astonished, but the frequency and suddenness of the changes of purpose in our court disgusted and wearied him of all public employment.
On Mr. Coventry's resignation, he was sent for to enter upon the duties of secretary, but still unwilling to accept the appointment, he as signed as an objection the fact of his not being a member of parliament; from which, the times being so critical, he thought public business would suffer. Lord Danby's imprisonment by the parliament, left the king without a councillor in whom he could confide; he was therefore the more urgent in pressing Sir William, for whom he entertained a high esteem, to accept the secretaryship. But Sir William having already suffered much annoyance and trouble incident to a public life, aware of the prevailing discontent and jealousy, and anxious to avoid the suspicion with which every act of every public man was scrutinized, persisted in his endeavour to effect his retreat. He suggested to the king a plan, the adoption of which, he judged, would tend to quiet the discontent of the people, establish a balance of power between the commons and the court, and secure to his majesty the ascendancy in the council. The king approved his reasons, adopted his plan, and reduced the number of his councillors from fifty to thirty, fifteen officers of the crown; the rest, chief men from the popular party. For a time the new council worked very well, but the incongruousness of its elements soon destroyed that concentration of purpose which is the very soul of such a body. In the next year, 1680, the council was again changed, and Sir William Temple, though, as one of their number, he had frequently joined in their deliberations, ever looking anxiously for the time of his liberation from public business, endeavoured gradually to withdraw himself into retirement. The king, however, again summoned him into action, intending to send him on an embassy to Spain; but just at the completion of his preparations, his majesty desired him to defer his journey till the end of the session of parliament, in which the factious were exceedingly violent. Sir William was at that time member for Cambridge, and strenuously opposed the attempt to cut of the duke of York from the succession. His endeavours, he said, should ever be to unite the royal family, but that he would never enter into any council to divide them. This Bill of Exclusion, after long and sharp contests, was thrown out; and the last act of Sir William in Parliament, was to convey the king's final answer to the address of the house of commons, containing a resolution never to consent to the exclusion of his brother: an office of so obnoxious a character, that no other person could be found to undertake it. When, however, in January 1681, the king dissolved the parliament without the advice of the privy council, he avowed with great boldness his disapprobation of the measure; and being now quite weary of all the faction and misgovernment he had witnessed, he declined the offer of being returned for the university, in the new parliament which was summoned at Oxford, and withdrew to Sheen. Thence he sent word to the king, "that be would pass the rest of his life as good a subject as any in his kingdom, but would never more meddle with public affairs." His majesty, in consequence, expunged his name from the council, but returned an assurances that Sir William's secession had given him no offence. From which time, to the end of this reign, and during part of the next, he remained at Sheen. In 1686, however, he removed to a very retired and agreeable spot, named Moor Park, near Farnham, Surrey, where, afflicted with the gout, and otherwise suffering from the infirmities of age, he resolved to pass the remainder of his days. On his way thither, he visited King James, and endeavoured to engage his majesty's favour and protection, but again avowed his fixed resolution never more to enter on any public employment. His retirement now was so secluded, and he became so much a stranger to the course and changes of public affairs, that not only was he wholly unacquainted with the design of the prince of Orange, but was one of the last men in England that gave credit to the account of his landing. He refused his son permission to present himself to William on his landing, but after James' abdication, he took his son with him to wait on the prince at Windsor. William pressed his acceptance of the secretaryship, and declared that kindness was the only motive for the concealment of his design. Both unwilling and unable himself, he, nevertheless, was content that his son should accept some appointment; accordingly, Mr. John Temple was made secretary at war, but had scarcely held the office a week, when he drowned himself in the Thames. Sudden and awful as was this event, Sir William received the intelligence with a degree of coolness wholly foreign to the usual character of parental affection, and involving a far greater extent of unfavourable import than can be comprised in the phrase, "stoic firmness," which, together with "Christian resignation," has been applied as descriptive of the feeling which dictated the utterance, on this occasion, of the Stoic maxim, that "a wise man may dispose of himself, and make his life as short as he pleases."
The disturbances of the revolution had compelled Sir William to abandon Moor Park and reside with his son at Sheen; but, at the end of this year, he returned to Moor Park, where he had the honour of being frequently consulted by his majesty, and where he remained till the period of his death, which occurred in Jan. 1698, he being then in his seventieth year.
Sir William Temple's general character seems, from other accounts, to have been attractive. Bishop Burnet, however, makes the following observations on him: "Temple was too proud to bear contempt, or forget such an injury soon. He was a vain man, much blown up in his own conceit, which he showed too indecently on all occasions. He had a true judgment in affairs, and very good principles with relation to government, but good in nothing else; for he was an Epicurean both in principle and practice. He seemed to think that things were as they are from all eternity; at least, he thought religion was fit only for the mob. He was a corrupter of all that came near him, and he delivered himself up wholly to study ease and pleasures." As a companion, he was social and humorous, and it has been said that he never made an unsuccessful attempt to gain the good will and friendship of another: as a politician he held a deservedly high rank; without ambition or avarice, and thoroughly acquainted with the true interests of his country, he pursued his course in sincerity, integrity, and honour, enjoying the friendship and confidence of each of the three kings in whose reigns he lived: as a writer, he is classed with the most eminent and popular of his time. His Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands, are a valuable and interesting performance, highly deserving the attention of the politician and philosopher. The Miscellanies, are essays on various subjects, lively and interesting, if not profound. His Memoirs are important to the history of the times. He published also An Introduction to the History of England; and Swift, who had lived with him during his latter years, edited, after his death, three volumes of his Letters. All Sir William Temple's writings display much acquaintance both with books and men, and are entirely free from the licentiousness so prevalent in that age. Their style is negligent and incorrect, but agreeable, resembling that of easy and polite conversation.