NEWTON, Isaac (1642-1727), of Woolsthorpe, Colsterworth, Lincs. and Trinity College, Cambridge.
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Family and Education
b. 25 Dec. 1642, o. (posth.) s. of Isaac Newton of Woolsthorpe by Hannah, da. of James Ayscough of Market Overton, Rutland. educ. Grantham g.s. 1654-6, 1660-1; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1661, BA 1665, MA 1668. unm. suc. fa. at birth; kntd. 16 Apr. 1705.1
Fellow of Trinity Coll. Camb. 1667-d.; Lucasian prof. of mathematics, Camb. Univ. 1669-1701; commr. for assessment, Cambridge, Camb. Univ. and Lincs. 1689-90; j.p. Essex, Kent, Mdx., Surrey, Sussex and Westminster 1696-?d., Herts. 1696-bef. 1701.
Warden of the Mint 1696, master 1700-d.2
FRS 1672, pres. 1703-d.3
A full treatment of Newton’s career cannot be attempted here. A cousin of John Newton, he was sent to Cambridge by his maternal uncle, a clergyman, and had achieved European fame as a philosopher, scientist and mathematician before he first became involved in politics in 1687. A conforming Anglican, his beliefs became essentially unitarian in his maturity. He was roused to opposition by James II’s mandate to the university to confer an honorary degree on a Benedictine monk who refused to take the oaths. ‘If one priest be a master [of arts]’, he commented, ‘you may have a hundred, and they must choose a burgess to Parliament’. Newton served on the delegation which was summoned before the ecclesiastical commission and harangued by Lord Chancellor Jeffreys on their duty to obey the royal commands.4
Newton defeated one of the Tory candidates by a narrow majority at the general election of 1689, but according to Ailesbury’s list he voted for agreeing with the Lords that the throne was not vacant, no doubt under the influence of his more experienced colleague, (Sir) Robert Sawyer. But after the defeat of the motion he wrote to the vice-chancellor to urge the proclamation of William and Mary, ‘with a seasonable decorum’, since it was to the university’s interest ‘to set the best face on things they can, after the example of the London divines’, and in a later letter, fortified by Sawyer’s opinion, he adopted a pragmatic de facto position:
Allegiance and protection are always mutual, and therefore, when King James ceased to protect us, we ceased to owe him allegiance by the law of the land. And when King William began to protect us, we began to owe allegiance to him.
He was not an active Member of the Convention, in which he was appointed to only four committees, and acted as teller in a single division, against the successful motion for the adjournment on 22 Feb. Privately he urged (Sir) George Treby, who was engaged in drafting new oaths of supremacy and allegiance, to expedite the necessary bill so that graduates should not lose time before they could take their degrees, and he noted with satisfaction that the oaths would not normally be imposed on new preferments. For the opening months of the Parliament he kept the vice-chancellor regularly informed of the proceedings which unfortunately he did not always understand himself. On 6 Mar. he wrote:
A grand committee of our House has passed some votes about imposing the new oaths, which I had rather you should have from another hand. They outvoted us yesterday by about fifty votes.
He was appointed to the committees for the relief of Huguenot refugees and for the toleration bill. On 30 Apr. he successfully applied, in conjunction with (Sir) Thomas Clarges, for leave to bring in a bill to confirm the charters and privileges of the two universities, and badgered the university into following the example of Oxford with a ‘catalogue of the fifteen heads to be inserted into the bill’, though he concurred with Sawyer in deprecating the proposed insertion of a new privilege at the expense of the royal prerogative. In the same letter he deplored the circulation of a petition throughout the university for a definition of true allegiance, which he believed would stimulate a ‘hazardous debate’, and declared:
I have endeavoured much to feel the pulse of the House about such an explication of allegiance, and find such an averseness from it, that I am of opinion the petition can do no good, but may do much hurt if ill resented by the Houses.
On this inharmonious note the correspondence ends. The King was so pleased with Newton’s loyalty that he nominated