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Most histories of American political development focus on the American Revolution in isolation. But the American Revolution succeeded in large part by building on the legacy of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Revolution of the 1640s, the first war waged on behalf of representative government. Cromwell, by defeating the armies of King Charles I, shattered forever the medieval doctrine of the "divine right of kings," a doctrine that was inherently opposed to republican democracy. One cannot overstate the magnitude of this achievement. In stead of the sovereignty of the king, who received specially dispensed divine authority at birth, the English Puritans advanced a new doctrine, the "sovereignty of the people subject to God." The Puritan creed denied privilege. Whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, we are all priests and kings with equal authority from God. The Puritans cited often Peter's proclamation to fellow believers: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession. . . "(1 Peter 2:9).
Cromwell stood in opposition to the extravagant excesses of the Renaissance, and led an anti-humanist movement against man's impulse to deify himself. For him, the law derived from Heaven reigned supreme, even over kings. Says Psalms: "Now, therefore, O kings, show discernment; take warning, O judges of the earth. Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled" (Psalm 2:10-12). "The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our King," says the Prophet Isaiah (v.33:22). This was the cornerstone of the Puritan world-view, and its logic drove them to put to death a priest-king in 1649. When the executioner's axe crashed down on King Charles' neck, the organic unity of the Middle Ages - in which church, state, ruler, and pastor were all combined into one mystical, seamless garment - split apart and could never again be repaired. An age came to an end and a new era was born.
In putting together the pieces, the Puritans began a movement in England to strictly define (if not yet completely separate) the functions of church and state in order to free the individual soul to make its peace with God unencumbered, as the Apostle Paul wrote, by "philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ" (Col. 2:8). Liberty was an important political aim of the Puritan Revolution in England, but it was not the final goal. The attainment of liberty for the individual was a means to the ultimate Puritan aim of achieving the fullest expression of divine truth. The Puritans were discovering the principle - so basic to American thinking and enshrined in our First Amendment - that variety of expression in religious faith strengthens the spiritual life of a nation; and that the government, far from aiding worship, actually impedes one's access to God even if the state is ostensibly Christian. The eyes of Puritans were glued on the next world, but once liberty of conscience for them took on a theological dimension, there was no question that the Puritans would defend this right to the death - a lesson King Charles I failed to grasp until for him it was too late.
Perhaps more than any war in Western history, the Puritan Revolution in England was fought over abstract ideas, which is why Cromwell's achievement looms so important in shaping our own understanding of what constitutes good government. We see in the Puritan spirit the seeds of the American passion for republican constitutional democracy, which drives us with an almost messianic zeal to try and export its principles to other nations deprived of its blessings. As was proven by the factthat 200,000 Americans died in World War II and another 50,000 lost their lives fighting for the freedom of others in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, Americans historically have believed liberty to be more precious than life itself. This phenomenon can be explained only by attaching religious significance to the inalienable rights of men. This attitude of mind, indeed the entire American political order, owes much to Cromwell's Puritan Revolution in England.
Cromwell's victory over the King's armies provided the colonists with the intellectual and moral justification for defending their republican institutions against the designs of grasping Anglican bishops and a conniving monarch. More importantly, Puritan ascendancy in England provided the theological framework as well as the necessary precedent for America's rebellion in 1776 against King George III, whose actions were not protected by divine sanction. Cromwell's revolution fell short of its stated aim, which was the creation of a Bible-based commonwealth undefiled by human additions. But his destruction of the royal bureaucracy, and the mystique that surrounded the king's office, changed the mind of the world, paved the way for the emergence of Whig political ideas, and laid the foundation for a distinctly American political creed. It is important, therefore, to look briefly at events in 17th-century England in order to understand why the American political and social order developed the way it did.
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Oliver Cromwell was born at Huntington in eastern England on April 25, 1599. His father, Robert, was a landlord, a justice of the peace, and a member of Parliament during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He died when Oliver was 18. But Oliver's mother, Elizabeth Steward, lived until she was 89, long enough to witness the greatness of her son.
Oliver had dark, brooding eyes, a ruddy complexion, and auburn hair. He had short legs, but a massive trunk and shoulders. Country living had made him an expert horseback rider and hunter. His temperament was moody, subject to bouts of wild merriment and sudden descents into silent despair. His favorite reading was the Bible. Even as a young man, he filled his correspondence with Scriptural citations, not feeling the need to quote full verses since Scripture was the language of the day. He attended Cambridge University for one year until his father died, when he returned home to take care of his mother and family. He also studied law for a time at Lincoln's Inn in London. In 1620, he married Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of a London merchant, and his love for her burned strongly throughout his life. "Thou art dearer to me than any creature," he wrote in a letter. She never concerned herself with her husband's politics or religious life, but was a devoted wife and mother.
Cromwell did not experience genuine Christian conversion until he was 30. Sir Philip Warwick, a friend of the Cromwells, observed that "the first years of his manhood were spent in a dissolute course of life, in good fellowship and gaming, which afterwards he seemed very sensible and sorrowful for, and as if it had been a good spirit that had guided him therein. . . he declared that he was ready to make restitution unto any man who would accuse him or whom he could accuse himself to have wronged." Eight years later Cromwell wrote to his cousin of his new birth: "You know what my manner of life hath been. Oh, I lived in and loved darkness, and hated the light; I was a chief, the chief of sinners. This is true: I hated the godliness, yet God had mercy on me."
We do not have any record of his spiritual struggle, but can conclude from the quality of the man that emerged that the experience must have been intense. It appears that his grim confrontation with his soul made him seriously ill, to such an extent that it took him a number of years to fully recover his health. He became driven by a passion for righteousness; but he also had an instinct for mercy and kindness. He might lash out suddenly in anger, but would be quick to repent and admit his fault. One can catch a glimpse of Cromwell's character in a letter he wrote to a friend consoling him on the death of a son: "There is your precious child full of glory, to know sin nor sorrow any more. He was a gallant young man... God give you His comfort."
Cromwell was elected to the Puritan-dominated House of Commons in 1628 for the Huntington borough. He had already achieved a reputation for his fiery attacks on Charles I's bishops. He showed open hostility toward his local bishop at Ely and donated large sums of his own money to "lecturers" and itinerant Protestant preachers. Cromwell believed the pompous pageantry of the Anglican clergy blasphemed God's name by trying to steal His glory.
Meanwhile, the outrageous behavior of King Charles contributed to the opinion of the Puritans, including Cromwell, that the wings of the monarchy needed to be clipped. Charles had started circumventing the independent "common law" courts in favor of the infamous Crown-controlled court of the "Star Chamber," which under Charles became a symbol of arbitrary justice and ecclesiastical arrogance. The Star Chamber court was established by the Crown ostensibly to administer justice more swiftly. Instead, it became an instrument of tyranny, not bound by standard procedures for protecting the rights of the accused. Under the Stuart monarchy, the Star Chamber became the main vehicle for the centralization of royal power and the punishing of political dissidents. Archbishop Laud, especially, used the Star Chamber ruthlessly to enforce adherence to the rituals of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Contributing to the unpopularity of Charles' regime was his incompetence in foreign policy. After a disastrous naval conflict with Spain he bungled into a war with France, which he also lost. Said one member of the House of Commons: "Our honor is ruined, our ships are sunk, our men perished, not by the enemy, not by chance, but by those we trust." Thus, by the time Cromwell began his political career, Charles' government, in the Puritan view, was thoroughly discredited. Moreover, Parliament had opposed both military campaigns and had denied the King funds to carry them out. Charles, however, by-passed Parliament by imposing forced-loans, which were declared illegal by the judiciary, thus creating a constitutional crisis over who had the final authority in matters of foreign policy - the Crown or Parliament. Charles then compounded the crisis by arresting 70 knights and gentlemen who refused to contribute to his war efforts. In 1628, the House of Commons passed the famous Petition of Right, which declared henceforth that there shall be no taxes without the consent of Parliament; no imprisonment without cause; no martial law in peacetime; and no quartering of subjects in the homes of citizens. Charles signed the document, but then put the opposition Puritan leaders in prison and dissolved Parliament on March 2, 1629. He would not call another for 11 years.
Political conditions in England went from bad to worse. The vast majority of Englishmen, many of whom considered themselves staunch Anglicans, suddenly found themselves labeled Puritans for opposing the increasing rigidity and hierarchical structure of the English Church. Archbishop Laud reviewed all printed material on religious matters. In 1637, he obtained a Star Chamber decree forbidding the printing of any book without his approval. Unauthorized printers were imprisoned, pilloried, or whipped. Extemporaneous preaching and praying were outlawed. William Prynne, a leading Protestant dissenter, was tortured and mutilated. Worst of all, from a Protestant perspective, Laud made it clear he wanted closer links with Rome, and Mass began to be said openly in London.
There is evidence that Cromwell seriously considered following John Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, and thousands of other Puritans in their massive migration to the New World. But he loved England too much, and so elected to stay and try to rescue his homeland from its apparent drift toward monarchical absolutism and "popery." He was bred for resistance, not retreat. Moreover, exciting news was coming from Scotland. In 1637, Charles commissioned Archbishop Laud to dictate to the Scots that they cease their itinerant religious practices and conform to Anglican ways. But Scotland said "No." In fact, the entire nation formally covenanted to have nothing to do with any "Romish" innovations. Charles decided to invade, but he was outmaneuvered and beaten by a well-disciplined and fierce Scottish covenanting army. Charles was then forced to promise the Scotsfree assemblies, free parliaments, and freedom of religion.
Archbishop Laud, however, persuaded Charles to break the agreement and call what became known as the "Short Parliament" in order to raise money for another campaign against Scotland. Parliament refused and instead presented him with more grievances. Charles dissolved Parliament again, and raised revenue by unilaterally increasing customs duties, known as ship money, which caused much unhappiness and resistance among merchants. As Charles prepared his invasion, however, the Scottish army launched a preemptive strike, crossing England's border. The King's army panicked at the sight of the disciplined Presbyterian ranks and Charles suffered another humiliating defeat.
The King was again out of funds and forced to call another Parliament, which became known as the "Long Parliament" because it sat until 1653. Cromwell was elected to represent the borough of Cambridge. This Parliament made the "Short Parliament" appear friendly by comparison. In fact, one of the King's favorite ministers, the Earl of Strafford, was tried for treason, found guilty, and beheaded. The King, now expressing an understandably more conciliatory attitude, agreed to sign the Triennial Act guaranteeing regular meetings of Parliament and promising that Parliament would not be dissolved without its own consent. He also accepted bills declaring ship money and other arbitrary taxes illegal, and was very contrite regarding other grievances condemning almost every aspect of his ad-ministration.
Rebellion broke out in Ireland in October 1641, which may have been the final incident that turned England against Charles. The Irish Catholic army was brutally butchering English Protestant women and children. News of the numbers came into London: 50,000-100,000-150,000 English people slaughtered. These rumors were exaggerations, but the flow of English blood was substantial. Charles failed to address the Irish Catholic revolt, and reports came in that the Irish army would soon be in London. Thousands of municipal officials and gentry marched on London with petitions and hysterical demands that the King do something to halt the Irish invasion. Many Puritans believed the Catholic uprising in Ireland was part of a conspiracy on the King's part to install an absolutist Catholic monarchy in the pattern of Spain or France.1 This, too, was an exaggeration, but one which many believed.
A month after the start of the Irish revolt, Parliament assembled again in London on November 22, 1641, and presented Charles with the "Grand Remonstrance," which consisted of more than 200 clauses. Cromwell was most pleased with the provision censuring the bishops "and the corrupt part of the clergy, who cherish formality and superstition." Charles rejected the remonstrance, and brought impeachment proceedings in the House of Lords against the principal authors of the Grand Remonstrance in the House of Commons (Pym, Strode, Holles, Hampden, and Hazerig). The House of Lords told Charles he had no legai precedent to remove these men from office because they had done nothing wrong. Charles then moved in with an armed guard to arrest the Puritan leaders on the floor of the House and try them for treason. Forewarned, Pym and his fellow Parliamentarians escaped and took refuge in friendly Puritan households in London. Charles arrived with his soldiers, swords drawn, saw the empty seats, and merely noted "the birds are flown." A week later the King left London to raise an army. He intended to close down Parliament with armed force and, thus, remove the major obstacle to centralizing royal power. England was on the brink of civil war.
Puritan leaders in Parliament concluded that they had no choice but to raise an army as well. They prepared to defend themselves not only from Charles, but also from the threat of an invading Irish Catholic horde with whom he was suspected of forming an alliance for the purpose of imposing a political and "papist" tyranny. Cromwell was not yet prominent enough to be noticed by Charles, but he had begun to distinguish himself in the eyes of his Parliamentary colleagues as a gifted political organizer. In July 1642, he was commissioned to go home to his constituency in Cambridge to recruit soldiers. At age 43, Cromwell had found his calling and a whirlwind of immeasurable velocity was unleashed upon the world.
There were grey streaks in his hair, lines on his brow:"Look at those strange, deep, troubled eyes of his, with their wild, murky sorrow and depth - on the whole wild face of him; a kind of murky chaos; almost a fright to weak nerves," wrote Thomas Carlyle in his Historical Sketches. His clothes were plain, almost slovenly. But John Hampden, a member of Parliament, predicted of Cromwell, even before he took to the battlefield: "That sloven whom you see before you, hath no ornament of speech; that sloven, I say, if we should ever come to a breach with the King (which God forbid), in such a case, I say, that sloven will be the greatest man in England."
What to many must have seemed like the end of the world, a nation at war with its king, the Puritans saw as a glorious opportunity to rid England of its impurities and fulfill the aspirations of the Protestant Reformation. No one expressed Puritan dreams better than John Milton, Cromwell's friend and future secretary. "God," he wrote, "is manifestly come down among us to do some remarkable good to our church and state." It would be up to the Puritans to show the world a Christian commonwealth, Milton thought: "Let not England forget her precedence of teaching the nations how to live," a commission no one saw more clearly than Cromwell. In July 1642, Cromwell contributed 100 pounds of his own money for arms and obtained a vote in Cambridgeshire allowing the town of Cambridge to raise two companies of volunteer militia.
On October 23, Cromwell made his first military appearance at the Battle of Edgehill under the command of the third Earl of Essex Robert Devereux. The Parliamentarians fought the Royalists to a standoff in a gruesome and bloody affair. We have few details about Cromwell's role, but he did learn that the Parliamentarians could not win without better generalship; that heavy armor was of little use; that the greatest weapon was not the sword or musket but the horse; and that relentless attack was the best defense. Most important, Cromwell observed, the cause of Parliament was doomed if its ranks did not show more discipline.
In 1643, he was given the rank of colonel and rapidly gained a reputation as a military organizer. He recruited his fighting men mainly from dissenting churches: Independents, Separatists, Baptists, Antinomians. Cromwell did not himself join any sect after severing his ties with the Anglican Church, but felt a natural kinship for those who steadfastly refused to permit anyone-bishop, priest, or layman-to come between them and the Lord Jesus Christ. He believed Paul, who told Timothy, "There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5, italics mine). Cromwell wanted his recruits to possess the same furious zeal that he had "for liberty of the Gospel and the laws of the land."
Cromwell always treated his regiments fairly and paid them on time. He also exercised strict discipline. If they swore they were fined; if drunk, placed in stocks; deserters were whipped. Any offense against a civilian or property was sternly punished; for this, he said, was not a war against Englishmen. He subjected his men to rigorous and continuous drills and exercises, and they became the best trained regiment in England. He also made an important military innovation. Cromwell learned to retreat, reform his men in the midst of battle, and launch second and third charges, thus keeping continuous pressure on his opponents. Previously, it was thought that the chaos of battle made such precise maneuvering impossible. Cromwell's army baffled plodding Royalist forces with its speed and flexibility. Here was a new kind of man in England, totally without fear, and one utterly certain of the righteousness and providential nature of his cause. He prevailed at the Battle of Gainsborough over a previously unbeaten Royalist foe by reforming his lines in a moment of crisis and surprising his fatigued opponents with a subsequent charge more ferocious than the first.
Cromwell proved himself a revolutionary genius on the order of Lenin. But instead of communist cells, he recruited from the small independent churches consisting mostly of tradesmen, farmers and small landowners. He felt at ease with the Puritan common-folk, called "Roundheads" by their aristocratic detractors. "My troops increase," he wrote happily. "I have a lovely company," full of "honest, sober Christians." He created a new theory of revolution that would be passed on to Samuel Adams and the American Sons of Liberty in the next century. During his entire military career Cromwell would never lose a battle, though often far out-numbered.
In 1644, Cromwell was given the rank of Lieutenant General and made a member of the war cabinet, called the Committee of Both Kingdoms. Cromwell served under the Earl of Manchester, who was Commander in Chief. "Brave Oliver," as he came to be called, distinguished himself again at the Battle of Marston Moor, where the New Model Army defeated decisively the King's Commander in Chief Prince Rupert. In a letter to his brother-in-law, Cromwell concluded of the victory: "Truly England and the church of God hath had great favor from the Lord in his great victory given unto us. . . It has all the evidences of an absolute victory obtained by the Lord's blessing."
But Cromwell criticized his commander, Manchester, for his lethargy and for failing to take full advantage of the disarray in Royalist ranks. Victory, Cromwell believed, should have been more resounding. Cromwell, who had begun to achieve legendary status, proposed that no member of Parliament - such as Manchester - be permitted to hold both civilian and military posts simultaneously. His proposal was accepted, and the New Model Army was reconstituted under the leadership of Sir Thomas Fairfax, with Cromwell as second in command. The stormy-eyed Puritan went on to destroy Charles' two remaining armies at the battles of Naseby and Langport. Charles then fled to Oxford, which was soon surrounded by the forces of Cromwell and Fairfax. Charles managed to escape, leaving the city in disguise. But he was captured by Scottish covenanters and turned over to Parliamentary authorities in January 1647.
Cromwell thought a modus vivendi2 might be worked out between Parliament and Charles. After the enemy had fallen, he knew it was his Christian obligation to sheathe the sword and extend a hand of reconciliation. He wanted, however, a promise from Charles that no longer would England's religion be dictated by grasping priests and hypocritical bishops; nor would Charles subject his countrymen to arbitrary royal or Star Chamber decrees. John Milton, the revolution's most famous theorist, expressed Puritan objectives when he said: "Our liberty is not Caesar's. It is a blessing we have received from God Himself," in a passage that gave rise to our phrase, the "blessings of liberty." Being "peculiarly God's own," said Milton, "that is truly free, we are consequently to be subjected to Him alone, and cannot, without the greatest sacrilege imaginable, be reduced to a condition of slavery to any man." Milton concluded, therefore, that "absolute Lordship and Christianity are inconsistent."
Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton visited Charles twice. Cromwell assured the King that he was not committed to any particular form of government, only, as Ireton put it, to "the defense of our own and the people's just rights and liberties" as "called forth and conjured by several Declarations of Parliament." Indeed, Oliver found that he rather liked the King and was deeply moved by Charles' concern for his family. After their discussions, in which Charles seemed amenable to Puritan demands, Cromwell assured the King that both the monarchy and the House of Lords would remain as constituted, and insisted only that he submit to laws duly enacted by Parliament. Most importantly, he would have to promise never again to employ the coercive powers of the Episcopal Church. Religious toleration, added Ireton, would have to be universal, even for papists. Charles committed to nothing, but suggested he was flexible. Charles went on to ruin the cordial atmosphere, however, by escaping from his comfortable quarters in Hampton Court Palace and fleeing to the Isle of Wight, where he took up residence at Carisbrooke Castle. A rift then developed between Parliament, which was predominantly Presbyterian, and Cromwell's Roundhead army, consisting mainly of Independents. Charles seized on this opportunity and, from his Carisbrooke Castle headquarters, began complicated negotiations between Parliament, the leaders of the New Model Army, and the Scots. He was not above promising one thing to one group and the opposite to another, which served his objective of intensifying discord within Puritan ranks. Charles concluded an agreement with the Scots, who promised to restore him to power in return for the establishment of their Presbyterian religion. This news alarmed Independents in the New Model Army, who wanted neither an Anglican nor a Presbyterian national church. An enraged Cromwell, reflecting the sentiment of his troops, stood on the floor of the House of Commons and called the King "an obstinate man, whose heart God had hardened." The King's supporters, encouraged by the Scottish agreement, raised another army and commenced the Second Civil War.
On April 29, 1648, Oliver Cromwell called a prayer meeting at Army Headquarters in Windsor. After a reading from Proverbs, the soldiers concluded that they had relied too heavily on human wisdom in their dealings with the King and had ignored the providence of God. "We were led," according to the journal of one in attendance, "to a clear agreement among ourselves, not any dissenting, that . . . if ever the Lord brought us back again in peace, to call Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account for that blood he had shed and mischief he had done to the utmost, against the Lord's cause and the people in these poor nations."
While Cromwell was in the field, the Independents and small Protestant sects expelled from Parliament the Presbyterians and anyone who advocated further negotiations with Charles. The so-called "Rump" Parliament was then formed, consisting of only one-eighth of its former membership. Cromwell was alarmed by the high-handed actions of his followers, but was persuaded that in time of civil war unity of purpose took precedence over established procedure. The Royalist forces were stronger than expected, outnumbering the Roundheads. But Cromwell, with fighting men of superior quality, crushed a Royalist uprising in Wales, defeated an invading Scottish army, and then moved into Scotland and restored order. The last of the King's supporters were defeated at the Battle of Preston in August 1648. Charles was promptly arrested.
Incredibly, Cromwell gave Charles yet another chance to save himself. Cromwell took to heart Jesus' admonition to forgive one's enemies and to show mercy. He had little interest in becoming an oiigarch. His main concern was for the safety of the realm and for creating political conditions that would permit Christian people to preach the Gospel freely. On Christmas Day 1648, Cromwell sent an envoy named Basil Denbigh to ask Charles to agree to give up the royal veto and abolish the episcopacy. Cromwell promised to spare the King's life if the concessions were accepted. Charles refused, still believing he was the divinely ordained head of both church and state and, therefore, beyond human reproach. Had he agreed to the restrictions on his power, Cromwell probably would have given back his throne. What more could a chief of state ask after losing two civil wars, both of which Charles had started? Cromwell originally had no desire for vengeance against his defeated opponent. But Charles was recalcitrant and unwilling to negotiate; he had also proven himself a frequent liar, a double-crosser, and extraordinarily arrogant. Hesitant until the last moment, Cromwell in the end gave in to the arguments of his son-in-law Ireton: there was no choice but to try Charles for high treason. After all, if Charles had won, there is no doubt Cromwell, Ireton, and many others would have been in exactly the same position, facing the executioner's axe.
Charles Stuart was found guilty as a tyrant, murderer, traitor, and public enemy of the Commonwealth of England. When Charles refused to plead, Cromwell (along with 134 others) signed the death warrant. The sentence was carried out on the morning of Tuesday, January 30, 1649, on a scaffold outside Whitehall. With the assistance of his executioners, Charles put his hair inside a white satin cap. He then removed his cloak, placed his head on the block and prayed devoutly. He stretched out his hands, and the axe blade fell swiftly on the back of his neck, severing his head from his shoulders. Thus ended Charles Stuart's life at the age of 48. The assembled crowd groaned in horror; it was a "cruel necessity," Cromwell lamented.
The impossible seemed to have occurred: God's vicar on earth had been put to death by his own subjects. Cries of anguish went out from ruling circles and pulpits throughout continental Europe. But Cromwell believed that Charles had abdicated his duty to serve and protect God's children. He had committed murder, started two civil wars, and drenched poor England in a torrent of blood. He had routinely plundered the people's liberties, and had brought ruin and misery to his countrymen for his own vanity and exaltation. As Paul says in his letter to the Christians in Rome, "there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God" (Romans 13:1). It was clear to Oliver that God had not ordained Charles' reign, as was obvious from the way he ruled. Just as the Lord in the Old Testament commanded the future king of Israel, Jehu, to "destroy" the tyrannical house of Ahab (2 Kings 9-10), so Cromwell believed the Lord had raised him up to remove permanently a tyrannical Charles Stuart from his throne. Moreover, Cromwell's right to do so had been codified in a court of law and executed. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson would claim this same right to rebel in the Declaration of Independence. Cromwell soon discovered, however, how difficult it was to construct a new political order on the ruins of the old.
One of the most intellectually powerful movements during the Cromwellian era was an Independent Puritan sect called the "Levellers," who wanted complete religious freedom, annual Parliaments, broader suffrage, and fewer taxes. They were very similar to Wycliffe's pre-Reformation Lollards. The Levellers had a small socialist wing, called "Diggers" or "True Levellers." But the great bulk of Levellers believed strongly in property rights and favored only the political levelling of privileged position, the elimination of titles of nobility, and the expansion of democratic ideas and constitutional protections. Their spokesman was John Lilburne and their logic was compelling; Cromwell, who liked Lilburne, was receptive to their arguments.
This movement was important because a faction of Levellers and Independents in the House of Commons initiated a new constitution caHed an "Agreement of the People," which proposed that the present "Rump" Parliament dissolve itself, that a new Parliament be elected every two years, and that a one-man, one-vote system be instituted, excluding only paupers and obvious social misfits. There would also be complete freedom of conscience and equal protection under the laws. This "Agreement of the People" was a forerunner of the United States Constitution. But England was not ready for the Leveller democratic program; and while Cromwell sympathized with men such as Lilburne, he ultimately accepted the more moderate position offered by the majority in Parliament: England would abolish the aristocratic monarchy and the House of Lords in favor of a 40-member council, and establish a "Commonwealth and Free State." In addition, the English Church would become Presbyterian rather than Episcopal.
This settlement greatly disappointed the Levellers, who felt abandoned by their leader. To them, the establishment of Presbyterianism was no victory; it was little more than a re-affirmation of Laud's government-run church, albeit a more austere version. "We fought two civil wars to achieve this!" was the Leveller cry. Cromwell put down an attempted mutiny by executing three Levellers in his army. Rarely have military insur rections been defeated with so little bloodshed. The episode saddened him greatly, though, because he was inclined to agree with the general thrust of their complaints, which in essence was that the Puritan Revolution had fallen well short of its stated aim of stripping the state's authority to tyrannize consciences.
But as chairman of the first Council of State, Cromwell felt his first duty was to keep the peace. In order to do so, he had to balance interests and continuously search for middle ground. To govern, he had to remain within the English consensus. The majority in England thought that completely eliminating the state church was utopian, anarchistic, and would probably lead to another civil war. As it was, Cromwell had to contend with Royalist uprisings in Ireland and Scotland. In addition, Charles' son and heir to the throne, Charles II, raised a formidable army of his own and invaded England in an effort to reclaim the Crown for the House of Stuart. Cromwell defeated young Charles' forces at the battle of Worcester in 1651; but he was learning that the creation of a free republic involved more than beheading a king. Theologically, Cromwell was a radical reformer, but operationally he was conservative. He wanted to move England toward Leveller ideals, but had the sense to do so cautiously.
Not until 1653 did Cromwell have the luxury to ponder the science and practice of governing. By this time, Presbyterians and Independents in the House of Commons had grown increasingly quarrelsome. Seeing a widening ideological chasm between the two Protestant camps, and wishing to avoid more social strife, Cromwell dissolved the Rump in 1653, calling it a conclave of "corrupt and unjust men . . . scandalous to the profession of the Gospel." He then assembled a so-called Assembly of Saints, which he hoped would rule "in fear of God." This body consisted of a few religious "fanatics"; but, contrary to the conventional portrait, the members of the Assembly were mostly sober-minded, moderate men. Cromwell admonished them to "be pitiful. . . and tender towards all though of different judgments . . . Love all, tender all, cherish and countenance all, in all things that are good . . . And if the poorest Christian, the most mistaken Christian, shall desire to live peaceably and quietly under you - I say, if any shall desire but to lead a life of godliness and honesty, let him be protected." John Locke could not have articulated any more plainly the principle of religious toleration. The Assembly of Saints then proceeded to abolish church patronage and mandatory tithes.
But political unrest was becoming rampant throughout the land. Dispossessed Royalists and Anglican clergy were very unhappy with the state of affairs for obvious reasons. Presbyterians, who still believed in the idea of a state church, were alarmed at the apparent trend toward the total disestablishment of religion. Meanwhile, on the extremist wing of the Puritan side, a group known as the Fifth Monarchy, which was rapidly gaining followers, wanted to abolish the common law of England altogether and substitute the unadorned laws of Moses. Having no notion of how to deal with the nation's problems - and its increasingly polarized politics - the Assembly of Saints abdicated their governing responsibilities and turned all authority over to Cromwell. Many moderate Puritans wanted to crown him king, a prospect that displeased Cromwell enormously. Hadn't they just fought two civil wars and beheaded a king in large part to abolish monarchy and privilege? "My own power," he lamented, "was again by this resignation as boundless and as unlimited as before; all things being subjected to arbitrariness, and myself the only constituted authority that was left, a person having power over three nations without bound or limit set." Cromwell worried that much of England had set him up as a false god. He had a Puritan understanding of the frailty of man and knew how dangerous it was to place unlimited political power in the hands of any one individual. The Assembly of Saints was a noble experiment in government. The problem was that they were unwilling to govern.
With extreme reluctance Cromwell accepted on his shoulders the awesome responsibility of bringing England into the modern age. "It matters not who is our Commander in Chief if God be so," Cromwell remarked, with a tone of resignation. If he had wanted, he could have set himself up as a dictator with absolute power. But Cromwell, because of conviction and character, did not choose that course. He was determined, instead, to bring order out of the chaos and place England under the rule of law. With the help of the Army, most notably Lieutenant General John Lambert, he established the "Instrument of Government," which was a modified version of the earlier rejected "Agreement of the People." "For the people I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever," said Cromwell. "This liberty and freedom consists in having government, those laws by which their lives and goods may be most their own."
The Instrument of Government is rarely discussed in histories of America's political system, but it had an important influence on the thinking of the authors of the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps one reason it is almost never mentioned is that it illustrates so conclusively that the origin of limited government emerged directly out of Protestantism. Under the Instrument of Government, the executive power remained with Cromwell, the Lord Protector and Council Chairman. But he had no right to veto Parliament's bills, a power he voluntarily relinquished. There are precious few examples in history of men willingly giving up power. Moreover, the Protector served at the pleasure of the Council. This was hardly broad-based democracy in the modern American sense, but it was a gigantic step in that direction and was a far more representative method of selecting the executive than the previous system of inheritance.
While Presbyterianism was England's official creed under the Protectorate, congregations selected their own ministers and toleration became the law of the land. Anglicans, for example, were permitted to practice the rituals in the Book of Common Prayer, just as Congregationalists, Baptists, Independents, Levellers, Diggers, and other Protestant sects were permitted freedom of worship in their own homes so long as they did not disrupt the peace. English Catholics and Quakers were not legally protected, but in practice they too were permitted to worship so long as they did not promote social discord. Cromwell once remarked: "I have plucked many [Catholic priests] out of the fire, the raging fire of persecution, which did tyrannize over their consciences, and encroach by arbitrariness of power over their estates." Cromwell also became good friends with George Fox, founder of the detested Quaker sect. Jews were readmitted to England. Thus, even though Cromwell saw his political mission inextricably tied to his faith, he did not see this at all incompatible with liberty. His policy toward the faith of others, including those with whom he disagreed vehemently, was the most tolerant England had ever seen. It was a tolerance that sprung to a great degree from his own Christian beliefs.
As important, from America's perspective, were Cromwell's tremendous achievements in foreign policy. He had a fatherly affection for Puritan New England. Even though New England often shunned his offers of assistance, he still provided his American brothers both military and economic protections from the aggressive colonial policies of France and Spain. During a two-year period, 1649-51, Cromwell built 40 warships, making England a formidable naval power, and he dramaticaliy ex panded British commercial activity. Under Cromwell, the English began beating the Netherlands in trade and reduced Portugal and Brazil to political insignificance. France was seriously battered and Cromwellian forces seized Jamaica from Spain. He did not want the world to fall to the Catholics, whom he saw as not only heretical but totalitarian. To him, British colonization was an essential evangelical mission. His victories he saw as divine providence, declaring in 1654: "As all the nations on this matter, and they will testify, and indeed the dispensations of the Lord have been as if He had said, England, thou art my first born."
In August of 1658, Cromwell fell deathly ill with bronchitis. Much of England was on its knees praying for the fallen leader. He asked his doctors not to look so melancholy. "I am safe," he said. "I am the poorest wretch that lives, but I love God, or rather am beloved of God," and added: "The Lord has filled me with as much assurance of His pardon and His love as my soul can hold." Tottering on the brink of eternity, one of Cromwell's last prayers was not for himself, but for his country.
"Lord," he said, "though I am a miserable and wretched creature, I am in covenant with Thee through grace and, if I may, I will come to Thee for Thy people. Thou hast made me, though very unworthy, a mean instrument to do them some good and Thee service; and many of them have set too high a value upon me, though others wish and would be glad for my death. Lord, however Thou dispose of me, continue and go on to do good for them. Give them consistency and judgment, one heart, and mutual love, and go on to deliver them, and with the work of reformation, and make the name of Christ glorious in the world. Teach those who look too much on Thy instruments to depend more upon Thyself. Pardon such as desire to trample upon the dust of a poor worm, for they are Thy people, too. And pardon the folly of this short prayer, even for Jesus Christ's sake, and give me a good night if it be Thy pleasure." On September 3, Oliver Cromwell fell into a coma and never again awakened.
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart