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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
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
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
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,
(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,
(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.