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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism
by Wormuth, Francis D.

It was force of circumstances rather than republicanism that led to the abolition of kingship in 1649. Pressure from their supporters, and a conviction that no lasting settlement could be made with Charles, impelled the "gentlemen Independents" among the Army officers and in Parliament to bring the king to trial. This was not a decision against the principle of kingship. As late as January, 1649, it was believed by some who advocated the trial of Charles that terms might be found upon which the young Duke of Gloucester could be brought in as king.1 He was only ten and was therefore considered too young to have been corrupted by his parents. But this expedient was no solution of the real problems; it would have pleased no faction in the kingdom, and if it were accompanied by a return to orthodox Parliamentarism it would have resulted in the victory of the Royalists and Presbyterians over the Independents, and no doubt in punishment for the Independent leaders.

So the Rump House of Commons made itself, of necessity rather than choice, the sovereign authority in England. When the Lords failed to concur in the bill for the trial of Charles, the Commons resolved: "That the people are, under God, the original of all just power: that the Commons of England, in Parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation; that whatsoever is enacted or declared for law by the Commons in Parliament assembled, hath the force of law, and all the people of this nation are concluded thereby, although the consent and concurrence of King or House of Peers be not had thereunto."2

A few months later the kingship and the House of Lords were formally abolished, and England was declared a "commonwealth" or "free state." The terms commonwealth and republic had at that time both the general meaning we attach to "state" and the specialized meaning of non-monarchical government. The supporters of the Rump were called "commonwealth's-men"; the title "republicans" was first applied to them in 1659.3

On March 22, 1649, the Commons published a Declaration4 justifying their actions. The kingship had been created by the people for their own good. Charles by unparalleled offenses had forfeited his title and had deserved punishment. The children of Charles were at war with the Parliament and had thus disqualified themselves. It was therefore proper to alter the government. Encouraged by the prosperity of the Roman republic, of Venice, Switzerland, and the United Provinces, Parliament had resolved to establish a free state. Monarchy in the past had resulted in misery, oppression, slavery, and corrupt government. The Lords, to maintain their own privileges, had supported the tyranny of the king. Since they did not represent the people, they were not entitled to a "negative voice" in legislation. They had employed their exemption from arrest to defraud creditors. Under the new government all would be different.

The House stated its program thus:

To prevent a new war, ... and to establish a firm and safe peace, and an oblivion to all rancor, ... to provide for the due worship of God, according to his word, the advancement of the true Protestant religion, and the liberal maintenance of godly ministers; to procure a just liberty for the consciences, persons, and estates, of all men conformable to God's glory, and their own peace; to endeavor vigorously, the punishment of the cruel murderers in Ireland, ... to provide for the settling and just observing of treaties and alliances with foreign princes and states, for the encouragement of manufactures, for the increase and flourishing of trades at home, and the maintenance of the poor in all places of the land.

To take care for the due reformation and administration of the law and public justice, that the evil may be punished, and the good rewarded.

To order the revenue. ...

To remove all grievances and oppressions of the people, and to establish peace and righteousness in the land.

In some quarters there was uncontrolled enthusiasm for the commonwealth. "Fatal and bloody have crowns, and scepters been in general to all nations, in particular to this in England," wrote George Walker of Lincoln's Inn. Those who called themselves Saints approved. Sir Edward Peyton thought that "It is probable that the determination of God is to destroy all monarchy in Christendom." The Fifth Monarchy men were republicans out of principle. The prophecy in "Daniel" made the overthrow of earthly monarchy a necessary preliminary to the Kingdom of Christ. Kings, moreover, were the enemies of God and the oppressors of the Saints. Godliness, not inheritance, was the proper test of fitness to rule. Legalistic considerations were not important. The zealots had looked with favor on the Agreement of the People; they now approved of the Rump, and they applauded the Little Parliament. But when Cromwell returned to the rule of a "single person," the extreme sectarians considered that he had abandoned the cause.

The commonwealth was defended also on the mundane level of expediency. Men of considerable literary skill took up the task. John Milton wrote no important defense of republicanism, unless one considers his Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, published in 1660, such a work. But Francis Osborne abandoned the light and satiric vein to make a savage attack upon monarchy and a reasoned exposition of the advantages of representative government.5 Monarchs had an interest distinct from that of their people and pursued it to the detriment of the public good and of true religion. A royal veto placed "the abstract of all the prudence, power, and probity of the nation in one individual, jewels of too high value to be packed up in so single and weak vessels, as our English monarchs appear to have been." Inheritance of the throne insured that fools would rule. Senates, on the other hand, had the same interest as the people and would not tyrannize. The number of members made for wisdom, and election of members permitted the choice of able men. Whatever advantages might be found in monarchy could be derived from non-royal officers like the Doge of Venice and the Prince of Orange.

Henry Parker supplied the Introduction to a historical work called The True Portraiture of the Kings of England.6 Parker had shown much logical acumen in defending the Parliament in the controversies of the past decade. He now proposed a new method of dealing with politics. "Experiment rather than logic," precedents, not precepts, should be the guide. Observation demonstrated that the people of Venice, the Hanse towns, Switzerland, and the United Provinces enjoyed more prosperity and more liberty than the subjects of monarchies. The public credit was more secure in republics than in monarchies, and consequently there trade flourished. Perhaps by this emphasis upon commercial advantages, a claim put forward also in the Declaration of the Rump, Parker hoped to reconcile the city of London to the commonwealth.

Marchamont Nedham published The Case of the Commonwealth Stated in 1650. The book represented the commonwealth as a middle ground between regal tyranny and the anarchy at which the Levellers aimed. The Levellers sought "not liberty, but licentiousness." Their plan would lead to incompetence, corruption, disorder, the community of property, and the return of regal tyranny. A free state was "the most commodious and profitable way of government, conducing to the enlargement of a nation every way in wealth and dominion."

Before 1654 republican authors directed their attacks chiefly at hereditary kingship. The Instrument of Government, however, established a Lord Protector holding office for life and independent of the legislative power. This raised a new problem. Three republican colonels, John Okey, Thomas Saunders, and Matthew Alured, all men of experience and reputation in the wars, signed a manifesto written by the Leveller Wildman and intended for circulation among the disaffected. It was in the form of a petition to Cromwell. The new establishment, they declared, violated the declarations of the Army, particularly the Remonstrance from St. Albans in 1648, which pledged the Army to Parliamentary supremacy. The Lord Protector, with a mercenary army at his disposal, would be able to overawe the Parliament. The suspensive veto of the Protector would amount to an absolute negative voice, for the Parliament would not dare defy his veto. Moreover, by alleging that a measure violated the Instrument the Protector could exercise an absolute veto. The outcome was that all the rights to freedom of conscience and security of estates recited in the Instrument were made dependent upon the ambition, covetousness, lust, pride, or desire of domination of a single person. The petition concluded with the request that a free Parliament be called in conformity with the provisions of the Agreement of the People proposed to Parliament by the Council of Officers in 1649. "And we are hereby inforced to make this humble address, and to pray your Highness' most serious thoughts of that high price of blood and treasure, which the Commonwealth hath paid for its right and freedom, which was naturally and morally due unto it before; and of the account that must be given to the dreadful God, for all the blood we have shed; and that we can be deemed no better than murderers, if the integrity of our hearts in the just prosecution of the war, do not render us justifiable therein."7 When Oliver learned of the existence of the petition he cashiered the three officers.

In 1656 Cromwell called for a general fast and prayer to the Lord to discover the Achan who had so long obstructed the settlement of the nation. The younger Sir Henry Vane took this occasion to publish A Healing Question Propounded and Resolved.8 The honest party, said Vane, had sought two things — the right of the nation to choose its officers and thus insure the public welfare, and the natural right to freedom in matters of religion. These objectives would be achieved if a representative body was chosen by those who possessed the sovereignty, that is to say "the whole body of adherents of the cause," for the enemies of the cause had forfeited their right. Foreign affairs might be placed in a council of state whose members would hold office for life, but this body should be under the inspection and oversight of the legislature. Executive power should be placed in a distinct office from the legislative; this might be one person, or more than one, but he should be subordinate to the legislature. The natural way to establish the government would be to summon "a free convention of faithful, honest, and discerning men, chosen for that purpose by the free consent of the whole body of adherents to this cause in the several parts of the nations."

Which convention is not properly to exercise the legislative power, but only to debate freely, and agree upon the particulars; that, by way of fundamental constitutions, shall be laid and inviolably observed as the conditions upon which the body so represented doth consent to cast itself into a civil and politic incorporation, and under the visible form and administration of government therein declared, and to be by each individual member of the body subscribed in testimony of his or their particular consent given thereunto. Which conditions so agreed (and amongst them an act of oblivion for one) will be without danger of being broken or departed from; considering of what it is they are conditions and the nature of the convention wherein they are made, which is of the people represented in their highest state of sovereignty, as they have the sword in their hands unsubjected unto the rules of civil government, but what themselves orderly assembled for that purpose do think to make.

Cromwell's reply to this ingenuous scheme was to imprison Vane for four months. In the same year appeared James Harrington's Commonwealth of Oceana. This work proceeds on assumptions so different from those of the other republican tracts, and exercised so enormous an influence, that it requires independent consideration.

In 1659 there was a great revival of republican writing. Before and after the restoration of the Rump there appeared numerous pamphlets setting forth the familiar arguments against kings and in favor of popular assemblies. In many cases these pamphlets adopted also the theory of historical necessity which Harrington had advanced and the institutional recommendations of the Oceana. To the orthodox republican and Harringtonian arguments were sometimes added Leveller conceptions, so that 1659, the Indian summer of radicalism, saw a conflation of all anti-monarchical thought.

Republicanism did not disappear with the Restoration. There were still men like Algernon Sidney and Slingsby Bethel in politics, and the Rye House Plot of 1683 appears to have been a republican conspiracy. But pure republicanism was no longer important; the part it had played in the Cromwellian period was now taken over by the Whig party, which aimed at Parliamentary control of the king rather than abolition of the kingship. It was possible to bring republicanism into line with Whig theory without much difficulty. Henry Neville, a disciple of Harrington, in 1681 proposed in his Plato Redivivus a scheme for controlling the King by associating with him in the exercise of his discretionary powers four councils chosen by the Parliament. This was all that was needed for "redressing and supporting one of the best monarchies in the world, which is that of England."

In the end the essential principle of republicanism triumphed. The form of monarchy remained, but the substance of power was transferred to Parliament. And from 1688 to 1832 control of Parliament lay with the class which Harrington had said must inevitably govern England, the landed gentlemen.


(1) See the unauthorized pamphlet called A Declaration of the Lords and Commons Assembled in Parliament, concerning the Trial of the King; ... Also the Future and Final Resolution of the Army, Touching the Person of the King, Their Resolution Touching the Government of This Kingdom, Their Summons to the Prince of Wales, and the Duke of York; and a Declaration concerning the Duke of Gloucester (London, 1649); and The Representative of Divers Well-Affected Persons, etc. (London, 1649).

(2) Commons Journal, vi, 110-111.

(3) See John T. Rutt, ed., Burton's Parliamentary Diary (London, 1828), iv, 342, for April 5, 1659; Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs (London, 1682), p. 678, for April 22, 1659. The New English Dictionary cites a usage of "republical party" in 1656; here the meaning is merely "anti-Stuart." A letter of November 5, 1658, speaks of a "republican party," by which is meant the "godly party" and its friends in the Army. Thurloe State Papers, vii, 495-496. See ibid., iii, 115, for December 30, 1654.

(4) A Declaration of the Parliament of England, Expressing the Grounds of their Late Proceedings, and of Settling the Present Government in the Way of a Free State. This is reprinted in William Cobbett, Parliamentary History, iii, 1292.

(5) A Persuasive to a Mutual Compliance under the Present Government, together with a Plea for a Free State Compared with Monarchy (Oxford, 1652), in Somers Tracts (London, 1811), vi, 153.

(6) Somers Tracts, vi, 77.

(7) The text of the petition is given in The Case of Colonel Matthew Alured (London, 1659).

(8) Somers Tracts, vi, 303.


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