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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism
The English Civil Wars
by Wormuth, Francis D.

Between 1640 and 1660 England underwent civil war and the execution of the king, a series of experimental governments, and factional disputes which resulted in the restoration of monarchy and the Stuarts. This period produced a body of political speculation which in volume, scope, and audacity was exceeded only by the literature of the French Revolution. In the specific field of constitution-making, the years between 1647 and 1660 probably saw more activity than either of the two comparable periods, the American and French Revolutions. Moreover, the ideas which dominated later constitution-makers were launched into the current of political discussion during the Civil Wars and the Interregnum. Popular sovereignty, written constitutions, constitutional limitations, the separation of powers, checks and balances, bicameralism — these principles and devices were thoroughly explored in the Cromwellian period. Some of the writings in this period are comparable in sagacity to the Federalist. It was from James Harrington, author of Oceana and guiding spirit of the Rota Club, that John Adams and Abbé Sieyès learned their political wisdom.

Nor do the actors on the revolutionary stage suffer by comparison with the great men of other times. Oliver Cromwell, coarse yet subtle and cunning, a man of doubtful integrity but a sincere "Saint," maintained himself by shrewd manipulation of political forces. "I have often thought, my Lord, how you hang by geometry, arched with your own fame, and not fastened to any pin of true friendship or interest," wrote an unfriendly "Person of Quality" in 1657. Freeborn John Lilburne was the first democrat and the first demagogue of modern history and co-author, in its later stages, of the Agreement of the People, which was, if we except the laws of the Greek cities, the first written constitution ever contrived. Major-General Lambert, soldier, statesman, and dilettante, framed the Instrument of Government, which was the first written constitution to be put into effect. Bradshaw, who presided at the trial of Charles I, was "a stout man, and learned in his profession: no friend to monarchy." Major-General Harrison went with those who "acted upon higher principles than those of civil liberty." "The brave Sindercomb," wrote Edward Sexby,1 "hath showed as great a mind as any old Rome could boast of; and had he lived there, his name had been registered with Brutus and Cato, and he had had his statues as well as they."

Great men have been among us; hands that penned And tongues that uttered wisdom — better none: The later Sidney, Marvel, Harrington, Young Vane, and others who called Milton friend.

It is easy to point to the immediate causes of the Civil Wars. The recourse of Charles I to extra-Parliamentary taxation caused many men to fear the danger of absolutism in England. Arbitrary arrests and the extraordinary procedures of the Star Chamber were regarded as threats to the legal rights of subjects. There was widespread dissatisfaction with both the theology and the administration of the Church of England under Archbishop Laud. These grievances had persuaded the members of the Long Parliament that Parliament must be given a regular and decisive voice in all public affairs. Charles, in desperate need of a grant of money to suppress rebellion in Scotland and Ireland, acceded to all requests until Parliament demanded that he surrender control of the militia. This he refused, and civil war was the consequence.

Harrington professed to find a deeper explanation of the events of his time. As a result of the policy of Henry VII in destroying the baronage and of Henry VIII in distributing monastic lands, most of the lands of England had fallen into the hands of the commonalty. Political power cannot long be withheld from the owners of the land, and revolution was the inevitable readjustment. Elizabeth, by. "converting her reign through the perpetual love-tricks that passed between her and her people into a kind of romance," had staved off the reckoning, but when Charles, "as stiff in disputes as the nerve of monarchy was grown slack, received that unhappy encouragement from his clergy, which became his utter ruin, while trusting more unto their logic, than the rough philosophy of his Parliament, it came unto an irreparable breach."2 Harrington, however, gave too little attention to the part played by the cities in the early stages of the struggle. If the merchants of London had supported Charles rather than the Long Parliament in 1641, the landed gentlemen of the House of Commons would have been helpless. Later, it is true, when the Presbyterian merchants turned against the Independent Army, the Army triumphed; but this was a victory of the sword rather than of landed property. Richard Baxter gave a more exact picture of the contending forces than Harrington:

A great part of the Lords forsook the Parliament, and so did many of the House of Commons, and came to the king; but that was, for the most of them, after Edgehill fight, when the king was at Oxford. A very great part of the knights and gentlemen of England in the several counties (who were not parliament-men) adhered to the king. ... And most of the tenants of these gentlemen, and also most of the poorest of the people, whom the others call the rabble, did follow the gentry and were for the king.

On the Parliament's side were (besides themselves) the smaller part (as some thought) of the gentry in most of the counties, and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and the middle sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on clothing and such manufactures.3

But this is not an adequate report of the part played by the lower classes in the struggle. With the exception of the tenants led by their landlords into one camp or the other, the rural poor were for the most part passive. Through much of the countryside their only ambition was to save their crops, and forming bands of "clubmen" they opposed with their primitive weapons the incursions of Royalists and Parliamentarians alike, and fell upon the luckless stragglers from the armies with the immemorial savagery of the peasant. But the yeomen of the eastern counties and the lower classes of the cities were a decisive factor in the war. They were the main strength of the Independent religious movement, and in this capacity they entered Cromwell's Ironsides and the New Model Army and constituted the force which defeated the Royalists and maintained in power the successive governments of the Interregnum. They produced as well their own political philosophies. The Leveller movement, which sought a democratic constitution, had almost its entire support from the radical sectarians of the Army and of London, and the Fifth Monarchy men who followed Harrison's leadership came from the same class.

In the early years of the war opposition to the king was a bond between elements which eventually proved to be irreconcilable. The majority of the members of the Long Parliament were men of substance who desired a national church, presbyterian in organization and Calvinist in theology. They wished to retain kingship, but to control the actions of the king. A minority of the members of the Parliament, but a majority of the officers of the New Model Army, were country gentlemen of the Independent belief. They favored Congregationalism in church organization and some degree of religious toleration. After the defeat and imprisonment of Charles, the Parliament and the Army sought some formula to settle their political and religious differences. Probably the problem was insoluble; at any rate, it was not solved. The Parliament was fearful of the Army but underestimated its power, for in 1648 the Independent leaders, apprehensive lest the Parliament should vote the restoration of Charles and make an alliance with the Royalists, purged the Presbyterians from the House of Commons. This was possible only at the price of a new alliance. The common soldiers had put their strength behind the Leveller movement and insisted that the Army indorse the democratic constitution known as the Agreement of the People. The officers of the Army could not act without the concurrence of the common soldiers, and accordingly they accepted the conditions of the Levellers. The Agreement was approved by the Council of Officers, which recommended it to the Rump House of Commons. But when the hurdle of the regicide had been safely crossed the officers lost interest in the Agreement. The Rump abolished the House of Lords and declared England a "commonwealth" with power in the hands of the Rump and a Council of State which included the chief Army officers. The attempts of the Levellers at insurrection were ruthlessly suppressed by Cromwell. In 1650 Cromwell became commander-in-chief of the Army. In that capacity he took the lead in dissolving the Rump three years later. It is not likely, however, that he was the chief contriver of this action. He was pressed on by Harrison and the Fifth Monarchy element in the Army, who desired the rule of Saints to prepare for the coming of King Jesus, and by Lambert at the head of what might best be called the professional soldiery, who were impatient with a government of politicians.

First came Harrison's turn. The Army summoned a "Little Parliament" of men nominated in the Council of Officers for their godliness. Among them, however, were many thoroughly worldly men who balked the reforms of the zealots and succeeded in dissolving the Parliament. Lambert provided the next expedient. He framed the "Instrument of Government" by which Cromwell became "Lord Protector." The Lord Protector was to rule with a unicameral legislature and a Council of State. The maintenance of the Army was guaranteed. In the course of a few years, however, Cromwell built up a "court party" consisting of favored Army officers and civil officeholders and began to look toward an alliance with the Presbyterians. The "Humble Petition and Advice," a constitution which was originally intended to declare Cromwell king, was the outcome of these maneuvers. The Army was disquieted and after Oliver's death gave its support to the opponents of Richard Cromwell. Richard was overthrown by an alliance of Rump republicans and Army officers. The Rump was restored and also the commonwealth, whereupon Sir George Booth attempted a Presbyterian-Royalist rising. Lambert, who was by now the actual though not the titular head of the Army, easily suppressed Booth, but doubts about Lambert's fidelity pervaded the Rump. The Rump turned upon the Army and was once more turned out. The leaders of the Rump secured the aid of General Monk, who headed the army of occupation in Scotland. But Monk, if he was not already pledged to the support of the Stuarts, was at any rate no republican, and when the forces opposed to him crumbled away he restored the Presbyterian Long Parliament. The outcome could not be in doubt: the Long Parliament summoned a new "Convention Parliament" which recognized Charles II without condition.

There were no explicit conditions, but the theory of English monarchy at the Restoration was not the theory of 1640. By 1660 the doctrine of "mixed monarchy" had almost completely supplanted earlier ideas on monarchy. Moreover, the ideas and proposals of the Interregnum remained alive and in the end determined the course of constitutional government not only in England but in America and to a large degree in France.


(1) Killing No Murder (1657). Sir Charles Firth believed this pamphlet to have been the joint work of Sexby and the Royalist Captain Silius Titus. The Last Years of the Protectorate (London, 1909), i, 224 n.

(2) The Commonwealth of Oceana (Liljegren ed.: Heidelberg, 1924), pp. 49-50.

(3) Autobiography (Everyman ed.), p. 34.


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