Lectures on Modern History/The Puritan Revolution

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At the death of Elizabeth, England separated from the Continent in politics, and moved thenceforth in a different direction. Long before, political observers like Commynes and Fortescue recognised the distinctive character and the superiority of the insular institutions; but these were not strong enough to withstand the Tudors, and the work had to be begun over again. It was begun, upon the ancient ways, with tradition and precedent; and when that was found to be not quite convincing, it was pursued by means of new, general, and revolutionary principles. The combination, or alternation, of these methods of policy is the peculiar note of the times before us.

When King James of Scotland became King James of England, the country obtained the benefit of being an island, protected by the sea. There was no longer a hostile and warlike neighbour, compelling military preparation and the concentration of power, which made foreign governments absolute. An English officer once congratulated Moltke on the splendid army which he had created and led. The marshal shook his head, and replied that the German army was a terrible burden on the country, but that the long Russian frontier made it a necessity.

James, who had been helpless at home against the nobles and the Kirk, conceived high notions of authority, high ideals of what a monarch may legitimately do for his country, acting by his own lights, his own will, his own conscience, not as flotsam on the changing and uncertain wave of opinion. And he came to England expecting that its wealth and civilisation, and its intellectual culture, which reached just then its culminating point, would afford a more favourable field for advanced theories of State. The Stuarts owed something to each of the two strongest and most obvious currents of political thought in their time. From Machiavelli they took the idea of the State ruling itself, for its own ends, through experts, not depending on the forces of society or the wishes of men uninformed upon complex problems of international policy, military administration, economy and law. And they adopted from Luther his new and admired dogma of the divine right of kings. They consistently rejected an opposite theory, well known to James from his teacher Buchanan, derived from Knox and his medieval masters, and wrongly imputed to Calvin,—the theory of revolution. They had the judges with them, that is, the laws of England. They had the Established Church, the keepers of conscience and consecrated expounders of the divine will. They had the successful example of the Tudors, showing that a government may be absolute and at the same time popular, and that liberty was not the supreme desire of English hearts. And they had the general drift and concurrence of Europe, as well as of the intellectual world at home, of Hooker, of Shakespeare, and of Bacon. The best philosophers, the most learned divines, many even of the most consummate jurists in the universe sustained their cause. They were not bound to believe that idle squires or provincial busybodies understood the national interest and the reason of State better than trained administrators, and claimed to be trusted in the executive as they were in the judiciary. Their strength was in the clergy, and the Anglican clergy professed legitimacy and passive obedience, in indignant opposition to the Jesuits and their votaries. The king could not be less monarchical than the divines; he could not renounce their support; and the bond between them was therefore a close one. Starting from the position that the sovereign will shall control and not be controlled, there was no certain evidence that the opposition to it would be deep, or formidable, or sincere. The quick increase of the middle class, which was the seat of sectarianism, could not well be discovered from the returns of taxation. The Stuarts might fairly be persuaded that they were not only wiser than their opponents, but more liberal than they, for the Puritans repeatedly demanded that the wages of heresy should be death. The distinction in point of liberality between king and parliament is manifest in the Catholic question.

James I. wished to avoid persecution. In discussion with two very superior men, Andrewes and Casaubon, he developed conciliatory views pointing to eventual reunion. His mother had been the champion and martyr of Catholic monarchy. His wife was a convert of the Jesuits. He regarded the Penal Laws as defensible on the ground of political danger only, not on the ground of religion. He desired to obtain a working arrangement with Rome, which should ensure the loyalty of the Catholics, in return for the inestimable benefit of toleration. Pope Clement VIII., Aldobrandini, was not satisfied, and sent instructions that James should not be acknowledged unless he pledged himself to much larger concessions. He feared, he said, to go too far in favour of a heretic. His briefs were not made public, but they came to the knowledge of Catesby, to whom they were very welcome. A king who might not be acknowledged was a king who might be deposed. When his advances were rejected, James issued a proclamation against the priests, which was the determining provocation of the plot. The violence with which Elizabeth defended her life against a multitude of conspirators was easily understood. But her successor was under no sentence of deprivation, and the legitimacy of his claim was untouched by arguments forged against the daughter of Anne Boleyn. The Catholics had reasonably hoped that the better treatment which they received at the beginning of the new reign, of the new dynasty, would be continued.

Under the shock of disappointment some deemed themselves absolved from allegiance, and left to their own means of self-defence. They regarded James as their aggressor. We cannot tell how much they knew of the odious filthiness of his private life and conversation, which foreign envoys described in language which nobody has ever had the courage to print. In any group there might be desperate and passionate men capable of devising crimes which they disguised under the gilding of a higher purpose. We have seen some of them at the murder of Riccio and the defenestration of Prague. But here there were deeper waters. Some of the accomplices, such as Digby, were men otherwise of blameless and honourable character, who could not be accused of hypocrisy. Then certain leading Jesuits were implicated. They were so far from encouraging the scheme that they procured from Rome a formal prohibition of violent designs. But they gave no hint of danger, and their silence was defended on the ground that although a general warning might have been given to save a Catholic prince, the seal of confession was absolute as against a Protestant.

A belief arose that these people were incorrigible. The precedent of 1572 established the right of murder. The doctrinaires of the League and their contemporaries added to it the right of revolution, applying to princes the rule followed against less exalted Protestants. How theorists were divided, or by what subtle exceptions the theory was qualified, nobody rightly knew. The generation that had beheld Guy Fawkes remained implacable. Not so King James. He resolved to perpetuate a broad division between the men of blood and their adversaries, and he founded thereon the oath of allegiance, which did no good. The Stuarts could honestly believe that the motives of persecuting parliaments were not inspired by a genuine sense of public duty, and that they themselves were defending the sacred cause against furious oppressors. The issues are not as plain, the edge is not as sharp as we suppose when we look back on the result. The question to be fought out between king and parliament was not monarchy or republic, democracy or aristocracy, freedom or the proteus that resists or betrays freedom. At many points the Stuart cause resembles that of constitutional monarchy on the Continent, as it was in France under Lewis XVIII., and in Prussia under the Emperor William. If Bismarck had been there he would have been the strength of the Royalists, and Cromwell might have met his match.

On almost every occasion, under James I., opposition made itself felt, and it became practically important, and anticipated the future in 1621. Then the Commons, guided by the most famous English lawyer, Coke, struck down Bacon, and deprived the Stuarts of the ablest counsellor they ever had. Impeachment and responsibility of ministers remained.

James's reign is also the beginning of colonial empire. Virginia was a cavalier settlement, proceeding from the epoch of exploration and the search for gold; and New England was a plebeian and sectarian establishment, planted by men who fled from oppression. They did not carry with them very clear notions of human right; but these ripened under their oppressive rule among those whom they persecuted. There was local self-government and federation in Connecticut, and spiritual self-government and toleration in Rhode Island; and from there the two institutions spread to the United States, and when the time came, the cavaliers of Virginia, who went out under James I., surpassed the fugitives of the Mayflower. They produced the Declaration of Independence, and bequeathed to America religious liberty and the political function of the Supreme Court. Of the first five presidents, four were Virginians. And in our own history, the ablest of the men who resisted Cromwell had studied practical politics in Massachusetts Bay.

The third political event by which the reign of the first Stuart profoundly influenced the modern world is the rise of those whom we call Congregationalists when we think of them as a Church, and Independents when we mean a party. It is on their account that this epoch is more fitly called the Puritan Reformation than the Puritan Revolution. For it is by the sects, including the Independents, that the English added to what was done by Luther and Calvin, and advanced beyond the sixteenth-century ideas. Continental Protestantism reacted on the Anglican settlement, and our exiled sectaries, before crossing the Atlantic, came into touch, in Holland, with the most original and spiritual remnant of the German Reformation. There Robinson completed the system of Robert Browne, a secondary and uninspiring figure, of whom we read: "Old father Browne, being reproved for beating his old wife, distinguished that he did not beat her as his wife, but as a curst old woman."

The power of Independency was not in relation to theology, but to Church government. They did not admit the finality of doctrinal formulas, but awaited the development of truth to come. Each congregation governed itself independently, and every member of the Church participated in its administration. There was consociation, but not subordination. The Church was governed, not by the State or by bishops or by the presbytery, but by the multitude of which it was composed. It was the ideal of local self-government and of democracy. Institutions which are the work of History were abolished in favour of popular control; and an Established Church, a Church connected with the State, was the supreme abomination, and went by the name of Babylon.

The political consequences reached far. The supremacy of the people, being accepted in Church government, could not be repudiated in the State. There was a strong prejudice in its favour. "We are not over one another," said Robinson, "but one with another." They inclined not only to liberty, but to equality, and rejected the authority of the past and the control of the living by the dead. The sovereignty of the yellow parchment fell before the light of reason. As there was no State Church, there could be no right of coercion over consciences. Persecution was declared to be spiritual murder. The age of Luther and the Reformation was an age of darkness. All sects alike were to be free, and Catholics, Jews, and Turks as well. The Independents fought, as they expressed it, not for their religion, but for liberty of conscience, which is the birthright of man. There was no place in their creed for a special prerogative of Englishmen over other nations, or of Independents over other churches. All this was in the stringent logic of the system, the immediate consequence of their dogmas on the constitution of the Church, and this gave to their liberalism the invaluable foundation of religion. Not every one of them saw equally far, or applied principles with equal courage. In the matter of tolerance they were supported by the Baptists, and after the appearance of Penn, by the Quakers, though their historian deplores it as an unheard-of dogma. In 1641 there was only one congregation in London, and it consisted of sixty or seventy members. Ten years earlier Lord Brooke writes that there were not above two hundred Nonconformists in all England. It is clear that the rapid growth of numbers baffled all calculation. The Independents did not bring on the Civil War, but they were strong enough to bring it to a conclusion; and when all the direct effects of their victory passed away, their ideas survived.

Charles, a better man but a worse king than his father, had none of his insight. When, after the Petition of Right, he governed without a parliament, the problem is whether he did it for the sake of power or for the sake of religion. It resembles the problem of the American Civil War, whether the confederates were fighting for State rights or for slavery. We call him the martyr of Anglicanism. But there is one moment in his career when, at the price of unparliamentary monarchy, he could have saved Episcopacy. He was in the hands of Strafford and of Laud, and they were strong men. When Charles had to think and act for himself, it may be that his thoughts were not always clear. He was attached to the English Church, but the religious controversy puzzled him. There was a very able man among the queen's chaplains who held that the Thirty-nine Articles might be interpreted favourably to Rome. "The religion of Rome and ours," said Laud, "is all one." It is not strange, perhaps, that he should have been suspected, when so many of the king's ministers—Windebanke, Cottington, Weston—became Catholics, and the same thing was whispered of others. After Worcester, when the Earl of Derby was being taken to Newark to be executed, a strange horseman joined the cavalcade, and rode for a time by the prisoner's side. It was said that this was a priest, who received him, and absolved him, in the hour of death. Although the Roman emissaries who negotiated with the archbishop, and offered him the red hat of a cardinal, never quite understood him, and could not explain why he who was so near was yet so far, they had no hopes of bringing him over. There was even a time when they reported more promising things of Ussher.

But for the religious question, the political opposition could not have carried the country with it. The Roman agents and nuncios were part of the religious question, and it is not prelacy alone that was at stake. In considering the old charge of a design to carry over England to Rome, we must remember this, that the art of understanding adversaries is an innovation of the present century, characteristic of the historic age. Formerly, a man was exhausted by the effort of making out his own meaning, with the help of his friends. The definition and comparison of systems which occupies so much of our recent literature, was unknown, and everybody who was wrong was supposed to be very wrong indeed.

We cannot avoid the question whether the three great victims—Strafford, Laud, and Charles—deserved their fate. It is certain that they were put to death illegally, and therefore unjustly. At the same time, the superior enlightenment and wisdom were not always on the side of parliament. But we have no thread through the enormous intricacy and complexity of modern politics except the idea of progress towards more perfect and assured freedom, and the divine right of free men. Judged by that test, the three culprits must be condemned. That is a principle which cuts very deep, and reaches far, and we must be prepared to see how it applies in thousands of other instances, in other countries, and in other times especially the times in which we live.

When war broke out, the country was divided, not unequally. North and west were for the king; but north and west were backward in comparison with the southeast, which possessed London and the longer purse. The familiar line from South Devon to the Humber simplifies too much. For Charles held Oxford and Nottingham, while the parliament had the seaports, though not all the intervening region, from Plymouth to Hull, and reached the Severn at Gloucester, and the Irish Sea about the Mersey. Parties were not moved to their depths on either side, as men are by the question of existence, and the contending armies were generally small. Therefore, the struggle was slack and slow, and the Presbyterian sects became masters of the situation, and decided for the parliament. At first, through want of energy, great opportunities were lost. In Montrose Scotland produced a soldier of genius; but in England the Ironsides prevailed by their organisation and discipline. German writers on military history declare Cromwell to have been the best leader of cavalry in modern war, the master and superior of their own Frederic, whose fame is due largely to his skill in that arm. The end was an overwhelming victory and a crushing defeat. But as the chief cause was the genius of one extraordinary man, and the sudden growth and spreading of the religious party to which he belonged, the effect lasted no longer than his life. The fabric he had reared was overthrown without an effort, offering no resistance to the destroyer. The soldier, therefore, was greater than the statesman. Opinion, of late years, has become very favourable to Cromwell, thanks chiefly to Mr. Gardiner. But until the Lives by Mr. Firth and Mr. Morley are completed, the last word, for our time, will not be spoken.

Those to whom the great Nonconformist is an object of admiration, have certain conspicuous flaws to contemplate. Cromwell, by his approval of Pride's Purge, was an accomplice after the fact. Colonel Pride expelled the majority, in order that the minority might be able to take the life of the king. It was an act of illegality and violence, a flagrant breach of the law, committed with homicidal intent. In ordinary circumstances such a thing would have to bear a very ugly name. Nor was it an act of far-sighted policy, for the outraged Presbyterians restored Charles II. without making terms. Then, the Protector professed to see the hand of God, a special intervention, when he succeeded, and things went well. It was not the arm of the flesh that had done these things. They were remarkable Providences, and the like. There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success. Thirdly, he was the constant enemy of free institutions. Scarcely any Englishman has so bad a record in modern history. Having allowed all this, we cannot easily say too much of his capacity in all things where practical success is concerned, and not foresight or institutions. In that respect, and within those limits, he was never surpassed by any man of our race, here or in America.

As political thinkers both Vane and Harrington are more profound. Harrington is the author of what Americans have called the greatest discovery since the printing-press. For he has given the reason why the great Rebellion failed, and was followed by the reaction under Charles II. He says that it failed because it omitted to redistribute the property of the kingdom. The large estates constituted an aristocratic society, on which it was impossible to construct a democratic state. If the great estates had been broken up into small ones, on a definite plan, the nation would have been committed to the new order of things, and would have accepted the law of equality. Poverty would have been diminished on one side, and nobles would have been abolished on the other. A timorous conservatism and legal scruples made this impossible, and government, by a law of nature, took its shape from the forms and forces of society. It is needless to go quite so deep as this to see that the Cromwellian system, which was the work of a minority, led by a man of pre-eminent services and talents, crumbled when the necessary leader was gone.

The Commonwealth is the second stage on the road of revolution, which started from the Netherlands, and went on to America and France, and is the centre of the history of the modern world. Seen from a distance the value of that epoch is not in that which it created, for it left not creations but ruins, but in the prodigious wealth of ideas which it sent into the world. It supplied the English Revolution, the one that succeeded, the American, the French, with its material. And its ideas became efficacious and masterful by denying their origin. For at first they were religious, not political theories. When they renounced their theological parentage, and were translated into the scientific terms of politics, they conquered and spread over the nations, as general truths, not as British exports. For a long time to come we meet with little that goes beyond the conservatism of Hobbes, or the liberalism of Vane, and Harrington, and Milton, and of Lilburne in his saner moments. That is our inheritance from the Long Parliament, the Civil War, and the Commonwealth.

We have to deal with events which belong essentially to Constitutional History, and must treat them with a light touch, that we may not trespass on appropriated ground. Our topic is, how absolute monarchy, which just then succeeded so brilliantly over the Channel, was attempted in England, under conditions of no apparent danger, failed and failed at a great cost. And how, in the course of the struggle, ideas were developed which proved ultimately strong enough, as well as sufficiently lasting, to carry out an entirely new structure of constitutional government. It is the point where the history of nations turned into its modern bed. It is the point also where the Englishman became the leader of the world.