10th Grade: The Puritans in Power

Greetings,

This week we looked at the aftermath of the trial and execution of Charles I in England, and the ascension of the Puritans, represented by Oliver Cromwell, to power.

It’s hard to get more controversial than Oliver Cromwell.  Some see him as a champion of republican liberty, while some go so far as to label him a proto-fascist.    The facts are that the army dominated Parliament, and so Cromwell dominated Parliament.  He used this power to clear Parliament out of many of his opponents. He then went on campaigns in Ireland and Scotland to put down Stuart inspired resistance known for their brutality, and attempted to resign upon his return.  When this seemed impossible, he continued in power and became ‘Lord Protector’ of England and practically a king in all but name.

If you are a fan of Oliver Cromwell, you look at the events this way:

  • He did not have the luxury of waiting for Parliament to decide on a proper course.  Society will not stop to wait while the Revolution makes its decisions.  Cromwell felt that if Parliament would not act, society might descend into anarchy.
  • His campaigns were brutal, but you could argue that they were traitors and needed to be killed.
  • His attempt to resign shows that he was not interested in power as such, and wanted broader based democratic government.

Those against could just as well argue that

  • His lack of patience with Parliament may have had much more to due with the fact that he viewed Parliament as ineffectual not because they couldn’t function, so much as they would not agree with him.
  • His brutality during the Irish campaign became notorious, as he executed even those who surrendered voluntarily.  This poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries to come.
  • His assuming essential monarchical powers does not help those who argue that Cromwell was not interested in power for the sake of power alone.

The English Civil War gives witness to a key principle of revolutions in general.  For an existing power to get overthrown, one usually needs significant power to oppose it.  For the existing power to in danger of getting overthrown usually (not always) means some kind of misrule and perhaps abuse of power which would affect many people.  However, this abuse of power would not affect everyone in the same way.  So, while the government falls because many opposed it, they did not oppose it for the same reasons.  After the revolution, the victorious discover that they could agree on what was wrong, but not what to do in its place.

Who gets the power in these circumstances?  Usually whoever exerts the most direct control over the army.  The dynamic that played out in England may resemble what happened in Egypt, for example, after they overthrew Mubarak.

Cromwell’s attempt to found a republic also raises uncomfortable questions about the line between morality and practicality in politics.  In his Discourses on Livy Machiavelli argues that any major shift in power, especially to a more democratic form of government, must be the work of one man (I include the full text at the end of the post).  In the end, the changes in government must have a point of unity, a point of control.  One might think that the American Revolution defeats this argument, but I think it unlikely the colonies would have successfully transitioned without George Washington, who “had” to serve as our first president.  One need not agree with Machiavelli’s moral implications (he excuses Romulus’ murder of his brother) to see the practical side of his ideas.

What did the Revolution Accomplish?

At first glance it seems the revolution accomplished little.  After Cromwell’s death Parliament recalled Charles I son Charles from exile and asked him to be King Charles II.  Charles did not rule without Parliament as his father had, but the powers of Parliament had clearly declined.  People rejoiced in Charles’s return from exile in France.  On the surface, since Charles II would have succeeded his father had their been no civil war, it seems like nothing changed.

But the proof would be felt in the long term.  Parliament had set a precedent.  Even in recalling Charles, they showed that it was they who could make kings as well as unmake them.  This would be felt most clearly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament kicked out James II and brought in William and Mary to be king in 1689.  Of course, William and Mary could reign, but on Parliament’s terms, not their own.

Still the aftermath of the Revolution does show the power of embedded habits and tradition.  We should expect that in uncertain times we fall back upon what we know — hence — Charles II.

The “Restoration” under Charles II had many strengths.  After the tumult of the previous 15-20 years people desperately wanted to relax and live their normal lives.  Charles II proved to be a very different man than his father, both in governing style and in temperament, as this portrait reveals.

Pulling off those shoes would require, if nothing else, a sense of humor, something Charles I lacked.  He also had more political sense regarding Parliament, and though he had little strong religious feeling himself (until the very end of his life, apparently) this at least meant that the religious furor that had wracked England for the past few decades could subside.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527):
Founding a Republic,
Excerpt from Discourses I, 9


To found a new republic, or to reform entirely the old institutions of an existing one, must be the work of one man only

It may perhaps appear to some that I have gone too far into the details of Roman history before having made any mention of the founders of that republic, or of her institutions, her religion and her military establishment. Not wishing, therefore, to keep any longer in suspense the desires of those who wish to understand these matters, I say that many will perhaps consider it an evil example that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him; from which it might be concluded that the citizens, according to the example of their prince, might, from ambition and the desire to rule, destroy those who attempt to oppose their authority. This opinion would be correct, if we do not take into consideration the object which Romulus had in view in committing that homicide. But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to be reprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficent purposes. The lawgiver should, however, be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else; for mankind being more prone to evil than to good, his successor might employ for evil purposes the power which he had used only for good ends. Besides, although one man alone should organise a government, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many. Therefore, as the organisation of anything cannot be made by many, because the divergence of their opinions hinders them from agreeing as to what is best, yet, when once they do understand it, they will not readily agree to abandon it. That Romulus deserves to be excused for the death of his brother and that of his associate, and that what he had done was for the general good, and not for the gratification of his own ambition, is proved by the fact that he immediately instituted a senate with which to consult, and according to the opinions of which he might form his resolutions. And on carefully considering the authority which Romulus reserved for himself, we see that all he kept was the command of the army in case of war, and the power of convoking the senate. This was seen when Rome became free, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, when there was no other innovation made upon the existing order of things than the substitution of two consuls, appointed annually, in place of an hereditary king; which proves clearly that all the original institutions of that city were more in conformity with the requirements of a free and civil society than with an absolute and tyrannical government.

The above views might be corroborated by any number of examples, such as those of Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, and other founders of monarchies and republics, who were enabled to establish laws suitable for the general good only by keeping for themselves an exclusive authority; but all these are so well known that I will not further refer to them. I will adduce only one instance, not so celebrated, but which merits the consideration of those who aim to become good legislators: it is this. Agis, king of Sparta, desired to bring back the Spartans to the strict observance of the laws of Lycurgus, being convinced that, by deviating from them, their city had lost much of her ancient virtue, and consequently her power and dominion; but the Spartan ephors had him promptly killed, as one who attempted to make himself a tyrant. His successor, Cleomenes, had conceived the same desire, from studying the records and writings of Agis, which he had found, and which explained his aims and intentions. Cleomenes was convinced that he would be unable to render this service to his country unless he possessed sole authority; for he judged that, owing to the ambitious nature of men, he could not promote the interests of the many against the will of the few; and therefore he availed himself of a convenient opportunity to have all the ephors slain, as well as all such others as might oppose his project, after which he restored the laws of Lycurgus entirely. This course was calculated to resuscitate the greatness of Sparta, and to give Cleomenes a reputation equal to that of Lycurgus, had it not been for the power of the Macedonians and the weakness of the other Greek republics. For being soon after attacked by the Macedonians, and Sparta by herself being inferior in strength, and there being no one whom he could call to his aid, he was defeated; and thus his project, so just and laudable, was never put into execution. Considering, then, all these things, I conclude that, to found a republic, one must be alone; and that Romulus deserves to be absolved from, and not blamed for, the death of Remus and of Tatius.

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