THE character of Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford, was a puzzle to contemporaries and has continued to vex historians ever since. Harley's motives, objectives, principles (if indeed he had any) are of a piece with his notoriously difficult handwriting: often obscure and sometimes quite indecipherable. Of course, for a successful politician, and Harley was by any standards very successful, opacity could well be a deliberate ploy: a little obfuscation might be just what was needed to disarm an aggrieved petitioner, or to fudge a delicate issue in Parliament. Except that in Harley's case the obscuring process became second nature. Some contemporaries considered it to be pathological. Lord Cowper referred to ' that humour of his, which was, never to deal clearly or openly, but always with reserve, if not dissimulation, or rather simulation; and to love tricks even where not necessary'. In common with other hostile observers, Cowper regarded the 'humour' as malignant: it grew 'from an inward satisfaction he took in applauding his own cunning'.
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