Although he was one of England's great orators, Bolingbroke was also an unstable profligate, and he was generally distrusted. Yet he apparently believed sincerely in a kind of "Tory democracy," for which he was later much admired by Benjamin Disraeli. Entering Parliament in 1701, he associated himself with Robert Harley and eventually came to rival Harley as a Tory leader.
After the accession (1702) of Queen Anne he became a favorite of the powerful duke of Marlborough and was appointed (1704) secretary for war. However, he resigned when Harley was forced out of his post by the Marlborough-Godolphin faction in 1708. When the unpopularity of the War of the Spanish Succession and the Henry Sacheverell incident brought in a Tory ministry (1710) under Harley, St. John became a secretary of state.
St. John used the London Tory clubs and writers such as Jonathan Swift to influence public opinion in favor of his policies and carried on, despite protests from England's allies, separate peace negotiations with France. In 1712 he was created Viscount Bolingbroke, and by the influence of Abigail Masham, Queen Anne's favorite, he gradually rose to become the leading figure in the government. The Peace of Utrecht (1713) and Bolingbroke's intrigues preceding it were denounced by the Whigs, whose political influence he sought to weaken by the Occasional Conformity and Schism acts, directed against religious dissenters. He now broke completely with Harley, who was dismissed in 1714.
Bolingbroke's true intent is not known, but it is sure that, in anticipation of the succession of a pro-Whig Hanoverian to the throne, he negotiated with James Francis Stuart, the Old Pretender, and began replacing Whig officers, especially in the army, with Tories. Whatever plans he had were thwarted by the sudden death (1714) of Queen Anne and the peaceful succession of George I, who promptly dismissed Bolingbroke. He was impeached, but he fled to France before the trial and was then attainted by Parliament. In France, Bolingbroke helped plan the uprising of the Jacobites in 1715, but in 1716 he was dismissed from the service of the Old Pretender on suspicion of having given secret Jacobite plans to the English government. He abjured the Jacobite cause, but only in 1723 did he receive (with the help of a generous bribe) a pardon from George I.
On his return to England, although excluded from the House of Lords, he exerted great political influence, at first supporting but later organizing strong opposition to Robert Walpole. He initiated new methods of opposition to the government, such as the use of parliamentary inquiries, and attacked the government in the pages of a new periodical, the Craftsman, to which he contributed a famous series of letters, including a "Dissertation upon Parties" (1735), under the signature of Occasional Writer.
He retired from politics in 1735 and spent most his remaining years on his estates in France, where he devoted himself to political and philosophical writing. His numerous writings, in a lucid but rhetorical style that was greatly admired at that time, include Letters on the Study and Use of History (privately printed, 1735-36), The True Use of Retirement (1738), and Idea of a Patriot King (1749). His works were edited by David Mallet (5 vol., 1754) and several times thereafter.
See his correspondence (ed. by G. Parke, 1798); biographies by Sir Charles Petrie (1937) and H. T. Dickenson (1970); J. P. Hart, Viscount Bolingbroke, Tory Humanist (1965); I. Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle (1968).