Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V: Of Oliver Cromwell, and the Protectorate. - An Historical View of the English Government
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER V: Of Oliver Cromwell, and the Protectorate. - John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government 
An Historical View of the English Government, From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Revolution in 1688, in four volumes, edited by Mark Salber Philips and Dale R. Smith, introduction by Mark Salber Philips (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Of Oliver Cromwell, and the Protectorate.
The boldness, the dexterity, and the dissimulation of Cromwell, had been eminently successful in conducting those measures which had ended in the death of the king, and in bringing the whole kingdom under the power of the independents. But the talents of this profound politician, his enterprising spirit, and the extent of his designs, were yet far from being completely unfolded. He had hitherto only set himself at the head of his own party; and, by their assistance, at the head of the military force of the nation. But a more difficult and hazardous task yet remained—to deceive this party; to render them subservient to his private ambition; and, after they had flattered themselves with the near prospect of that political establishment with which they were so much intoxicated, to employ a great<332> part of them, together with the army which was devoted to their interest, in seating him on the throne of England, with greater power than had ever been enjoyed either by James or by Charles.
To have a proper conception of the means by which he was enabled to execute this master-piece of dexterity and villainy, we must, in the first place, consider his popularity in the army, whose power at that time, was unbounded. The weakness and the undesigning integrity of Fairfax, rendered him a mere tool in the hands of Cromwell, who made use of the name and credit of that general to accomplish his own views, while he avoided the odium and suspicion which their avowal must have drawn upon himself. The great body of the troops were devoted to Fairfax, with a blind veneration produced by an opinion of his military talents, and by a confidence in the sincerity of his professions. Possessed of little capacity or inclination, to scrutinize the conduct and motives of those who acted the chief parts on the political theatre, they were jealous of the interest and rights of the<333> soldiery, and gratified by every event which contributed to the exaltation of their favourite leaders. A few of the principal officers appear to have seconded the designs of Cromwell, either from personal attachment or considerations of private interest. The rest were for the most part men of low education, equally destitute of penetration to discover the tendency of his measures, and of capacity to prosecute any vigorous plan of opposition.
The diversity of opinion among the independents themselves, concerning the nature of that constitution which they had it in view to establish, created at the same time innumerable difficulties, and occasioned such delays as afforded ample scope to Cromwell, for preparing and ripening that peculiar system which he meant to introduce.
A great part of those who concurred in putting the late king to death, were men of principle. Whatever fanaticism in religion, or whatever prejudices in politics they had imbibed, they appear to have been animated with fervent zeal, and with sincere dispositions, to promote the good of the public.<334> They looked upon the tyranny of Charles as inseparably connected with monarchy; and, while the kingly office was permitted to remain, they regarded the punishment of the king as a mere palliative, incapable of producing a radical cure. But the idea of a republic was vague and general, admitting a great diversity of modifications. The celebrated republics of antiquity, supplied on this occasion, no models proper for imitation; for, as those governments were all established in very small communities, the people at large were in a capacity to exercise the legislative power; while in a large and populous country like England, it was evidently necessary that it should be committed to an assembly of representatives. From this radical difference many others must follow of course; and thus, in a matter not ascertained by experience, there was opened a boundless field to political projectors, in which they might range at pleasure, and declaim without end or measure, upon their different speculative improvements.
While the zealous and disinterested friends of republicanism continued in a state<335> of uncertainty, with respect to the precise object which was to terminate their labours, the old house of commons, that meeting which remained from the wreck of the long parliament, after the violent expulsion of those members who had disapproved of the trial of Charles, and after the house of peers had been declared no part of the legislature; this garbled house of commons endeavoured to hold itself up to the public, as forming the basis of the government in question. It was composed of about ninety persons, deriving their authority, not from the voice of the people, but from the direct interposition of that military force, by which they had been encouraged and supported in all their usurpations.1 They took upon them to abolish the upper house, but reserved to the peers the privilege of electing or being elected knights of shires, or burgesses. They ventured to declare, “that the office of a king is unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the interest, liberty, and safety of the nation.” Assuming the title of the parliament of the Commonwealth of England, they exercised the legislative and executive<336> powers; and as an auxiliary for executing the business of the latter department, they appointed a council of state, composed of thirty-nine persons. Not satisfied with the supreme authority of England, they did not hesitate to effect an union with Scotland and Ireland, and to determine that from each of those countries thirty representatives should be admitted.
While this remnant of a national council maintained a good understanding with the army, its commands were easily enforced throughout the nation. But things did not long remain in this fortunate situation. Although its members owed their present establishment to the violent interference of a military force, they had no intention to continue in a state of dependence upon the power which had raised them. They had already, as was formerly observed, taken direct measures, however ineffectual, for disbanding the army, and had thus incurred the strong resentment of every person connected with that department. Their continuing to exercise all the functions of government, and their claiming even the<337> power in that extraordinary emergency of reforming and new-modelling the constitution, could not fail at the same time to shock all the feelings and principles of the real friends of liberty. It had, indeed, been enacted that the parliament called in 1640, should not be dissolved without its own consent; but it surely was a wide interpretation of that statute, to contend that this enactment should operate in favour of that mere shadow of national representation, which had been so recently made use of as a cover to the tyranny of the military power. The death of the king, according to the views of all those who wished to effectuate a thorough reformation of abuses, had produced an extinction of the old government; and it would be ridiculous to devolve the formation of the new system upon that handful of obscure individuals, who, by a train of accidents, had been left in the possession of the political machine. A transaction so important and extraordinary, seemed to require the concurrence of the whole nation; but, undoubtedly, could not with propriety be concluded, unless in a full and comprehen-<338>sive meeting of the national representatives. The existing members of this house of commons were probably not ignorant of what the public in this particular might expect from them. They had, accordingly, sometimes talked of dissolving themselves; but on these occasions found they had always pretences for delaying so disagreeable a measure; and at length they came to a resolution of superseding it altogether, by electing a set of new members to fill up their number.
These two circumstances, the resentment of the whole military order against that assembly, and the vague uncertain notions concerning that political system which the sincere republicans had in contemplation, were the main springs which Cromwell put in motion for effecting his ambitious designs.
His first object was to get rid of the old house of commons; a measure not altogether free from hazard; for that house contained the leaders of the independent and republican party, who had been embarked in the same cause with the army, in bringing the sovereign to the block; and however<339> these confederates were now embroiled by a difference of private interest, a reconciliation, from the recollection of their common sentiments, was far from being impossible. Cromwell employed every artifice to inflame this difference, and when the jealousy and resentment of the army had been raised to a sufficient pitch, he ventured, in concert with the principal officers, by a military force to turn that assembly out of doors.2 The circumstances with which he executed this bold measure are well known. With a mixture of rage, of religious cant, and of insolent jocularity, he called upon a party of soldiers whom he had provided for the occasion, and ordered them to lay hold of those members who appeared refractory; declaring “that they were no longer a parliament, and must give place to better men.”—“I have been wrestling,” says he, “with God, to excuse me from this, but in vain.”3 His purpose, no doubt, was to intimidate; but it is not improbable that he followed, at the same time, the natural bent of his temper. We may easily suppose that, however destitute of sensibility; how resolute soever in prosecut-<340>ing his plans; yet, in this emergency, when he was on a sudden to shift his ground, and to abandon his old friends and associates, all was not quiet within; and that he could not prevent unusual perturbation. To stifle reflection, a vigorous effort became necessary; and he was obliged to work himself up to a degree of passion and violence.
In whatever light this measure might be viewed by the army, it was of too decided a nature not to open the eyes of the nation, and to discover his real designs. Such of the republicans as were capable of discernment, must now have been fully convinced of the treachery of their leader, and have seen with shame and indignation, the total overthrow of a fabric which they had long been endeavouring to rear. They had the additional mortification to find that they were too insignificant to procure any attention to their complaints; and that the loss of their power was beheld by the people at large with exultation and triumph. The presbyterians, as well as the adherents of the late king, must have regarded this event with cordial satisfaction; the former, pleased<341> with the ruin of a party by whom they themselves had been supplanted; the latter, deducing a complete vindication of their political tenets from the unfortunate issue of the late attempts to limit the prerogative, and rejoicing in the prospect, that the present disorders would induce men of all parties to seek the restoration of public tranquillity by recalling the royal family.
Even some of the military officers penetrated the sinister designs of Cromwell, and immediately withdrew their support from him; but they possessed neither influence nor dexterity to produce a desertion of the forces under their command. The rest were pleased with any arrangement which exalted the military power, and were easily satisfied with the dissolution of the late house of commons, as a preliminary step to the calling of a more suitable representation of the whole community. The common herd of the troops, viewing this crafty politician, either in the light of a patron and protector, to whom they were indebted for their situations, and from whom they expected preferment; or in that of a saint, whose religious charac-<342>ter and professions inspired them with full confidence in his integrity, adhered invariably to his interest, and were disposed, without examination or suspicion, to promote and execute all his measures.
The army, having in this manner swept away the old government, became entirely masters of the field, and possessed an unlimited power. They had obtained a clear canvass upon which they might amuse themselves in designing future constitutions. As, in their former disputes with parliament, they had formed their several delegates into a deliberative council, under such regulations as enabled them, without confusion, to collect their general determinations, they now proceeded, in the capacity of legislators, to make trial of their political talents. One of their first attempts of this nature was to call a convention, the members of which, amounting to about an hundred and twenty, were elected by counties and towns in England, Scotland, and Ireland. But as this meeting, which is known by the name of Barebone’s parliament,4 did not, it seems, answer the views of Cromwell, he soon prevailed upon them,<343> notwithstanding a protestation by several members, to resign their authority.
This crude experiment was followed by the delineation of a system more full and complete in all its parts. In a military council, there was produced, and received with approbation, what was called an instrument of government, containing the outlines of the system proposed.5 It provided that the chief powers of government should be committed to a protector, a council of state, and a parliament.
To the office of protector, bestowed, as we might easily suppose, upon Cromwell himself, were annexed the greatest part of those prerogatives formerly belonging to the monarchs of England.
The council of state was to consist of not more than twenty-one, nor of less than thirteen persons. The first members were named by the instrument itself; they were to enjoy their office during life or good behaviour; and every vacancy was to be supplied by the council naming a list of three persons, out of which the protector was empowered to choose the member. In the determina-<344>tion of peace and war, and in the exercise of the executive power, the protector was to act with the advice and consent of the council.
The parliament consisted of 400 representatives for the whole of England and Wales; of whom 270 were to be elected by the counties, the right of election belonging to such as possessed a landed estate, amounting to the value of 200l. The small towns, known by the denomination of the rotten boroughs, were excluded from the privilege of sending representatives. To the English members were added thirty for Scotland, and the same number for Ireland.
That this national assembly might resemble the ancient parliaments of England, provision was made, though at a subsequent period, for a house of lords, to be composed not of the old hereditary nobility, but of members nominated by the protector, whose privilege of sitting in that house should remain during life. Their number was limited to seventy.* <345>
The protector was empowered to summon meetings of parliament; he was required to call them every three years, at least; and to allow their deliberations to continue for five months without interruption. He had no absolute negative upon such bills as passed through parliament; unless they were contrary to those fundamental laws contained in the instrument of government. But by this original deed he had secured a standing army of 20,000 foot, and 10,000 horse; for the maintenance of which regular funds were provided.
Such was the famous plan of government, by the establishment of which Cromwell appears to have attained the summit of power and grandeur. It is necessary to examine minutely the particulars of this new system; which, by not admitting its chief magistrate to assume the title of king, has commonly been considered as a species of republic. In this respect, and by its extending, and in some degree equalizing the national representation in the public assembly, it may seem, from a superficial view, to favour the great body of the people. But in reality it<346> had an opposite tendency; and subjected all the branches of administration, all the exertions of government, to the arbitrary will of a single person. It established a standing army of 30,000 men, under the direction of the protector, and which could not be disbanded without his consent. Such a force, in the state of military discipline which he had produced, was fully sufficient to overcome all resistance, and to govern the nation at pleasure. By such a body of mercenaries entirely at his devotion, he could easily sweep away those cob-web laws which were spread out to decoy and ensnare others, not to restrain his own conduct. We accordingly find that the first parliament which was called, in consequence of this new constitution, having proved refractory by disputing the title of the protector, he placed a guard at the door of the house, and refused admittance to the members, until they had subscribed an engagement to acknowledge his authority. In a future parliament, he employed a similar violence to subdue the opposition of its members.<347>
To facilitate, however, the interposition of that absolute authority which he intended to exercise, he found it convenient to make variations in the constitution which he had introduced; and in particular to enlarge the department of the army, by allowing its officers to interfere in the civil administration. An insurrection of the partizans of the royal family, which had been early discovered, and easily quelled, afforded a pretence for treating the whole party with extraordinary severity.6 By a regulation of a most arbitrary and oppressive nature, they were subjected to a contribution amounting to a tenth of their estates; and for levying this imposition, Cromwell divided the whole kingdom into twelve military jurisdictions; each of which was put under the government of a major-general with exorbitant powers, and from his determination there lay no appeal but to Cromwell himself.
From the slightest attention it must be obvious that this political system was not framed for duration. It was such a mixture of opposite elements, such a combination of discordant and jarring principles, as could not fail to counteract one another, and to<348> produce disorder and commotion. The protectorate of Cromwell was apparently a democracy, but in reality a military despotism; the most arbitrary and oppressive species of absolute monarchy. It held out to the people the show of liberty and of privileges, by inviting them to choose their own representatives, to exert themselves in acquiring political interest, in a word, to consider themselves as legislators, and to act accordingly; while in reality, their efforts were always to end in disappointment; their ideas of self-importance and dignity to produce only mortification; their pretended interference in the administration of public affairs to be in perfect subordination to the will of a single person, by whose hand, like puppets, all their movements were guided and directed.
To render an absolute government palatable to a whole nation, it must be confirmed by inveterate usage.7 The attention of the people must be turned away from the conduct of their governors, and diverted into other channels. Occupied with their private pursuits, they must be taught to look<349> upon the business of the magistrate as no business of theirs, and to esteem it his province to command, as it is their duty to yield implicit submission: they must be habitually convinced that they have nothing to do with the laws but to obey them. The forms of the constitution must be calculated to keep out of view the rights of subjects, to present continually the image of unbounded authority in the prince, and to inspire a veneration for his person and dignity. The grandeur of the monarch, the rank which he holds in the scale of sovereigns, the facility with which he collects an armed force, and provides resources for supporting it, the secresy and expedition with which he enters upon a war, attacks the neighbouring states, or procures information with respect to their designs, the tranquillity which he maintains through the whole of his dominions, by repressing the animosities, the turbulence and faction so prevalent in popular governments; these advantages must be constantly held up to the nation as the peculiar blessings of despotism, which, in the opinion of some, render that political establishment upon the whole<350> superior to every other. The people, in short, must be made to exult in that power by which they are kept in subjection, to regard their own glory as involved in that of their grand monarque, and their own debasement and servitude, as compensated by the splendor of his prerogative, and the extent of his dominion. Experience has shewn that by long custom, and by the influence of example, such a national spirit is not unattainable; nay, that sentiments of loyalty and affection to a despot, have, in the history of the world, and even of civilized nations been more prevalent than a sense of liberty and independence. But the union of the former and the latter, in one mass, is a mixture of heterogeneous particles, which incessantly repelling each other, must be frequently shaken, and kept in continual ferment, to prevent their separation. To introduce a despotism under the guise of a popular government is to dress an avowed and bitter enemy in the garments of a friend and benefactor: it is to tantalize the people with a prospect of pleasures which they are never to enjoy; to require that they should banish from their thoughts a set of rights and pri-<351>vileges which are constantly placed before their eyes.
To the native inconsistencies and contradictions which tended to overthrow the system of usurpation introduced by Cromwell, we must add a circumstance of still greater moment, that from the beginning it had, in every shape, been opposed by a prodigious majority of the nation. Exclusive of the army, every class or description of men, whether political or religious; the episcopal party, the presbyterian, and the independent; the friends of the royal family, the supporters of limited monarchy, and of a commonwealth; all united in their aversion to the present constitution, and in their detestation of the means by which it has been established.
These dispositions of the public mind had not escaped the penetrating eye of Cromwell. He knew that his government, as an innovation, which ran counter to all the former ideas and habits of the great body of the nation, was highly unpopular; he was willing, as far as possible, to remove this prepossession; and, in the latter part of his ad-<352>ministration, he seems to have had a serious intention to restore the monarchy. After the powers which he had already assumed, he probably thought that the army would have no objection to his obtaining the title of king; and by the restoration of the kingly office, provided it were settled in his family, together with the re-establishment of the ancient house of peers, there was reason to expect, that a great part of the nation, weary of the past disorders, and less adverse to the new government, than to the dominion of the imprudent and infatuated house of Stewart, might be at length reconciled to his authority.
With this view he secretly promoted an address, intituled the humble petition and advice of the parliament of England, Scotland, and Ireland, to his highness; by which he was entreated to accept the title of king, and to revive the practice of parliaments consisting of two houses.8 A committee was appointed to hold a conference with him upon the subject, and to urge the expediency of the measure proposed. The farce of persuading Cromwell to accept of the royal<353> dignity was carried on for some time; but the real difficulty lay in procuring the consent of the army, who hated the name of king; and more especially in procuring the consent of the principal officers, who entertained the hope of succeeding to the protectorship.
Many persons of moderate opinions, throughout the nation, seem to have approved of this project, as most likely to produce a permanent settlement.* The<354> protector himself treated the proposal with the utmost indifference; delivering his public declarations in a jargon wholly unintelligible; and speaking of it in private as a trifle, which he might comply with merely to gratify the humour of others. “He had tried all possible means,” says Ludlow,9 to prevail with the officers of the army to approve his design, and knowing that lieutenant-general Fleetwood,10 and colonel Desbrowe were particularly averse to it, he invited himself to dine personally with the colonel, and carried the lieutenant-general with him, where he began to droll with them about monarchy, and speaking slightly of it, said it was but a feather in a man’s cap, and therefore wondered that<355> men would not please children, and permit them to enjoy their rattle. But he received from them, as Col. Desbrowe since told me, such an answer as was not at all suitable to his expectations or desires. For they assured him there was more in this matter than he perceived; that those who put him upon it were no enemies to Charles Stuart; and that if he accepted of it, he would infallibly draw ruin on himself and his friends. Having thus sounded their inclinations, that he might conclude in the manner he had begun, he told them they were a couple of scrupulous fellows, and so departed.”*
His endeavours, however, were fruitless. A petition from the officers of the army was presented to parliament, requesting “that the protector might not be pressed to take upon him the title and government of a king”;11 and Cromwell, with great ostentation of humility, and much profession of declining a load of cares and difficulties, took the merit of refusing the crown.† But the office of protector<356> was confirmed to him, with the privilege of naming a successor.
It is probable that this attempt of Cromwell to restore the regal title and dignity, which discovered an effrontery beyond example, did not entirely proceed from the mere vanity of wishing to possess the pageantry of a crown. To think otherwise would be to suppose that he betrayed a weakness not of a piece with the rest of his character. The effect of this measure, had it been carried into execution, is extremely doubtful: but there is ground to believe that it occurred to this bold and impudent usurper as a stratagem to be hazarded, perhaps the only expedient by which he had any chance to extricate himself from the surrounding difficulties.
The time now evidently drew near, which, in spite of all his efforts, was to annihilate the ill-gotten authority of this extraordinary personage. During the four years in which he held the protectorate, he was exposed to desperate attempts from all quarters; from cavaliers,12 from presbyterians, from independents and republicans; and he seems to<357> have never enjoyed a moment, either of quiet or security. That he escaped assassination, considering the continued ferment of the nation, and the enthusiastic zeal of the parties whom he had so highly irritated, is wonderful. By his extraordinary vigilance, by the uncommon intelligence which he procured, by a judicious mixture of lenity and of severity towards those who conspired against him, he broke and disconcerted the schemes of his enemies, and reduced them to the necessity of temporising and acting with great circumspection. The obstacles, however, to a final and permanent settlement were daily encreasing. Deserted by every man of principle, unless perhaps, a few low-bred fanatics in the army, whose weakness rendered them unable to penetrate his designs, he found himself destitute of a friend in whose counsel he could repose any confidence, or from whose credit or influence he could expect any assistance. Concerning the desperate posture of his affairs, Thurloe,13 with great simplicity exclaims, “Truely, I think nothing but an unex-<358>pected providence, can remove the present difficulties.”
Towards the close of his life, he appears to have become sensible of the folly and vanity of those ambitious projects in which he had been engaged; and to have felt a conviction, that the power which he had attained was a mere shadow, likely upon the first gathering of a cloud, to vanish in a moment. If not touched with remorse, for his crimes, he was at least terrified by the prospect of that vengeance which they had provoked. He became dejected, and melancholy. The face of a stranger gave him uneasiness. He was haunted incessantly by gloomy apprehensions, and never thought himself secure in any situation. By concealing, and frequently changing the chamber which he slept, by the constant attendance of a strong guard, by wearing a coat of mail under his cloaths, by seeking indirect roads when he performed a journey, and pursuing a different way in his return home; by these, and such unavailing precautions, he endeavoured to prevent those attacks which his<359> anxious and tortured mind was continually foreboding.
The load of cares and vexation with which he was oppressed, at length affected his constitution, and produced a distemper which carried him off, in the forty-ninth year of his age. The thoughts of a future state had, for some time, suggested to him uneasy reflections; and the particulars which historians have transmitted upon that point, present the curious but disgusting spectacle of a violent enthusiast; conscious of having deserted all those principles with which he set out in life, and now covered with guilt, and with infamy, endeavouring by the illusions of fanaticism, to find religious consolation in his last moments. He is said to have asked Godwin, one of his preachers, whether the doctrine was true, that the elect could never fall, or suffer final reprobation? “Nothing more certain,” replied the preacher. “Then I am safe,” said the protector, “for I am sure that once I was in a state of grace.” So much of the original leaven remained, that he still was capable of being wrought up to his former<360> fervors. He believed that an answer had been given to his prayers, and to those of his chaplains, promising that he should not die of the present distemper.
Few characters have united more extraordinary qualities, or afford more subject for speculation, than that of Oliver Cromwell. The ardour of his disposition should naturally, it might be supposed, have rendered him tenacious of any opinion or system of conduct which he happened to embrace; and he seems from his infancy, to have acquired a strong predilection for the peculiar tenets both religious and political, embraced at that period, by the independents. His attachments, in this respect, were fortified by early habits, and by the intercourse and example of many kindred spirits, with whom he lived in the strictest intimacy and friendship. Yet this system he afterwards abandoned; those friends he betrayed; and all those principles by which he had been distinguished, and upon which he appeared to build his reputation, he scrupled not, for the sake of a temporary and precarious power or emolument, openly to renounce. The<361> man who in the company of Pym and Hambden, and other assertors of public liberty, had formed the resolution of leaving his native country14 rather than submit to the usurpations of the crown, was not ashamed to give the lie to all his professions; and after having put the king to death for tyranny, to hold himself up to public view as one of the most notorious tyrants and usurpers that the world ever beheld.
To his original and genuine fanaticism he was probably indebted for the success of his projects. Had he not been at first sincere in his professions, it is not to be supposed that he could have gained the confidence of his companions and associates, or that he would have risen to much consideration with the public. But being a real fanatic, and a real republican, he became distinguished among those of the same way of thinking; and in the subsequent progress of his mind towards a full and complete apostacy, it was probably a long time before they, or even before he himself, perceived the alteration. His hypocrisy and dissimulation might easily be considered as useful and excusable arts which<362> he employed in a good cause; and his own aggrandizement might be regarded as a mere collateral object, which was not incompatible with the interest of the public. The moment when he began, directly, and without any subterfuge, to sacrifice the latter to the former, when his irregular passions were no longer able to justify themselves, and when his conscience first avowed the naked truth of his detestable villainy, was doubtless a point scarcely visible, which he would have no pleasure in examining, but which, as soon as discovered, he would most carefully conceal.
It is at the same time observable, that though Cromwell was tempted by his ambition to abandon those patriotic views, to which his temper and early habits had strongly inclined him, his natural disposition still appeared conspicuously in all cases where it was not counteracted by the consideration of his own interest. Though he had set himself above the laws, and in the exercise of those illegal powers which he had assumed, was guilty of the most arbitrary proceedings, yet in maintaining the police<363> of the country, and in the ordinary administration of government, he displayed great vigour and public spirit. “Westminster hall,” by the confession of Lord Clarendon, “was never replenished with more learned and upright judges than by him; nor was justice either in law or in equity, in civil cases, more equally distributed where he was not a party.” He is admitted, even by his enemies, to have eagerly selected persons of ability and reputation to fill the various departments of public business; to have been a zealous promoter of science, and a munificent patron of genius and learning.
With whatever disgust or indignation every ingenuous mind will contemplate the successful villainy of this extraordinary person, it is impossible to withhold a degree of admiration from his uncommon abilities; the boldness with which he planned, and the steady resolution with which he executed his measures; the dexterity with which he availed himself of the animosity, and the jealousies prevailing among the different parties; the penetration with which he dis-<364>covered the foibles of his own partizans and the artful policy by which he rendered them the dupes of their own interested views. His situation admitted of no regular system of operations, but required such immediate exertions as were instantaneously suggested by the occasion; and in these he seldom was guilty of any oversight, or let slip any opportunity to forward his designs. The characteristical and prominent feature of his conduct was decision. Placed on a new ground, and frequently on the brink of a precipice, without any beaten path to direct him, he never hesitated in choosing his course and the pursuit of his object, seldom committed any false step, or met with any considerable disappointment.
His uncommon deficiency in elocution must appear surprising to those who consider the clearness of his judgment, and the quickness of determination which he exhibited in all his actions. This might arise from a variety of causes; from slowness of imagination, a quality not incompatible with sound understanding; from his early neglect to cultivate this useful talent; from the un-<365>intelligible jargon which his fanatical habits had rendered familiar to him; and lastly, from the necessity he frequently was under of disguising and concealing his real intentions and sentiments. Perspicuity is the foundation of eloquence; but those persons can never be perspicuous who are afraid of being understood.
A strong propensity to sarcastic mirth, and bufoonery, has been taken notice of as a remarkable ingredient in the composition of this wonderful character. The amusement he found in putting burning coals in the boots of his officers, or inviting them to a feast, while the common soldiers were directed at a certain signal, to rush in and run away with the dishes; his flinging a cushion at the head of Ludlow, when they were engaged in a conference upon a subject of no less importance than the settlement of the constitution; his taking the pen to sign the warrant for the execution of Charles, and bedaubing with ink the face of Martin, who sat next him; his indecent suggestion, that a person who saw him and his companions on their knees round the table, might<366> imagine they were seeking the Lord, while they were only seeking a bottle-screw; these and other instances of caurse and unseasonable mirth are collected by his biographers, as forming a manifest inconsistency in the character of so great a man. In that violent measure, when he dissolved the house of commons, we find him indulging a most absurd and whimsical vein of raillery and sarcasm, and insulting the members, while he put an end to their authority: “Thou art a whoremaster—thou art an adulterer—thou art a drunkard, and a glutton.—Take away this bauble (the mace.) O! Sir Harry Vane! Sir Harry Vane! The Lord deliver me from Sir Harry Vane!”15
When things which appear important and solemn to the rest of the world, are from a singular disposition, beheld by any individual with indifference or contempt, they are apt from the contrast of his own emotions and sentiments with those of others, to excite laughter and ridicule. Thus a melancholy man who derives no pleasure from the common enjoyments of life, is dis-<367>posed to make a jest of the bustle created by avarice or ambition, and of the idle pursuits in which the bulk of mankind are engaged. The hardened villain, whose mind has become callous to the impressions of humanity and virtue, is in the same situation with regard to the sacred ties of honour and conscience; and is apt to hold in derision those kind and generous feelings, those principles of right and wrong, by which men are bound together in society, and by which they are determined in many cases to sacrifice their interest to their duty. He not only beholds from the state of his own heart, every appearance of generosity and virtue under this ridiculous aspect, but is disposed, in defence of his own conduct, and as a kind of antidote to the censure and execration of mankind, to cherish and hold up this view of things, both to himself and to others. The great painter of the human heart16 has, in the character of Hamlet, exhibited a man of sensibility, and of a melancholy cast, indulging himself in the fancy, that the conqueror of the world might be employed to stop a beer barrel; and in such ludicrous views of<368> mankind as tend to demonstrate the vanity and folly of their boasted accomplishments, their eager desires, and their unwearied pursuits. In the character of Richard the Third, the same author has displayed the sarcastic humour of a villain, who makes a jest, not only of the follies and weaknesses, but of the virtuous dispositions and conscientious scruples of mankind. The piety of Saint Harry, the holy laws of Gray-beards, the credulity of Lady Anne, in believing his promises, the affection of his mother, and her tender concern for his welfare, with every quality that is commonly regarded as valuable and praise-worthy, are the standing objects of his derision and merriment. Somewhat akin to this disposition, in the dramatic character of Richard, is the rustic jocularity of Cromwell which appears to aim at laughing all virtue out of doors, at the same time that it seems to convey the expression of exultation and triumph in the success of his hypocrisy. Upon reading the treatise of Harrington, in which that author thought proper to express a confident expectation that the protector would establish<369> a commonwealth, this facetious usurper is reported to have said—“The gentleman had like to have trepanned me out of my power; but what I have got by the sword, I will not quit for a little paper shot.”*
When we examine the conduct of Cromwell in all its parts, it may seem surprising that his memory has been treated with more lenity and indulgence than it certainly deserves. This may be explained from the influence of popular feelings; and still more from the character and sentiments of political parties. His great abilities, the success of all his undertakings, and the respect which he commanded from all the powers<370> of Europe† seized the imagination of Englishmen, and were calculated to gratify national vanity. The partizans of the house of Stewart were, at the same time, induced to hold up the favourable side of the policy of Cromwell in order to blacken the memory of those patriots who were not less the enemies of that usurper than of the absolute power of the crown. They affected to consider the usurpation of the protector as a necessary consequence of the attempts to restrain the prerogative, were better pleased with the protectorate than with a republican system, and seem to have felt towards him a sort of gratitude for overthrowing that form of government to which they were most adverse.
The death of Cromwell put an end to that authority which, probably, even if he had lived, he would not have upheld much longer. His son Richard,17 whom he had nominated to the office of protector, had<371> neither the ambition or desire, nor the capacity to maintain it. The leaders of the army, whose influence encouraged them to aim at the supreme power, could not be retained in subjection. Richard was deposed. The remains of the long parliament were recalled. Fleetwood and Lambert,18 who were at the head of the English forces, attempted to give law to this assembly; but they wanted the transcendant genius of Cromwell to effect their purposes. General Monk,19 who commanded a smaller but probably a better disciplined army in Scotland, was immediately summoned to the assistance of parliament. Having marched up to London, he proceeded so far in obedience to the commons as to carry military execution into the city, for refusing to pay the taxes imposed by parliamentary authority.
This attempt shews pretty clearly that he intended to tread in the paths of Oliver Cromwell; but finding by the general voice of the public, that the plot was not likely to succeed, he seems to have quickly changed his ground; and endeavoured without loss of time to repair this unlucky step; he<372> exerted all his interest in recalling the royal family. In this design he was seconded by a great part of the nation; by all who had been shocked and disgusted with the late violent measures, and who saw no end to the disorders and calamities arising from the ambition and sinister views of the military leaders.<373>
[1. ]Traditionally called the Rump Parliament or Purged Parliament, after the 1648 purging of (mostly Presbyterian) members who favored further negotiations with Charles. The remaining members were almost exclusively Independents.
[2. ]Cromwell, at the head of the New Model Army, forcibly dissolved the Rump Parliament in 1653.
[3. ]See Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, vol. 3 (London, 1806).
[4. ]The Barebone’s Parliament, comprising members selected by Cromwell, was called in 1653, only to be dissolved later that same year.
[5. ]Cromwell’s written constitution, the Instrument of Government, was issued in late 1653. Under it, Cromwell took the title of Protector.
[* ]Of those who actually sat in consequence of such nomination sixty-five are specified in Memoirs of Cromwell, vol. I.—The greater part collected from Thurlowe’s list.
[6. ]In March 1655, Colonel John Penruddock raised a royalist insurrection in Wiltshire which led to severe repression.
[7. ]Compare Hume’s remark that the first principle of “the right of magistracy, is that which gives authority to almost all the establish’d governments of the world: I mean, long possession in any one form of government, or succession of princes. ’Tis certain, that if we remount to the first origin of every nation, we shall find, that there scarce is a race of kings, or form of a commonwealth, that is not primarily founded on usurpation and rebellion. ... Time alone gives solidity to their right.” A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 356.
[8. ]This was drawn up by Parliament and issued in 1657.
[* ]“The Protector,” says Thurloe, in a letter to Henry Cromwell, “has great difficulties in his mind, although he hath had the clearest call that ever man had; and for ought I see, the parliament will not be persuaded, that there can be any settlement any other way. The title is not in the question; but is the office that is known to the laws and this people. They know their duty to the king, and his to them. Whatever else there is will be wholly new, and will be nothing else but a probationer, and upon the next occasion will be changed again. Besides, they say, the name Protector came in by the sword, out of parliament, and will never be the ground of any settlement; nor will there be a free parliament so long as that continues; and as it favours of the sword now, so it will at last bring all things to be military. These, and other considerations, make men, who are for settlement, steady in their resolutions as to this government now in hand; not that they lust after a king, or are peevish upon any account of opposition; but they would lay foundations of liberty and freedom, which they judge this the next way to. My Lord Deputy [Fleetwood] and General Desbrowe, oppose themselves with all earnestness against this title, but think the other things in the petition and advice very honest.”
[9. ]Edmund Ludlow (ca. 1617–92), English republican politician and member of Parliament. Ludlow’s Memoirs, first published in 1698–99, were a major source for Whig historiography of the Civil War. Recently, the Memoirs have been revealed to be a “semiforgery.” Though based on a text by Ludlow, the work was “fundamentally rewritten” to support a radical Whig point of view. See Blair Worden, Roundhead Reputations (London: Penguin, 2002), 12.
[10. ]Charles Fleetwood (d. 1692), politician and major-general of the eastern district after 1655, later appointed to Cromwell’s House of Lords; John Desborough (1608–80) was an officer in Cromwell’s army, attaining the rank of colonel in 1648 and major-general in 1651.
[* ]Ludlow’s Memoirs.
[11. ]See Edmund Ludlow, Memoirs, ed. C. H. Firth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), 2:24.
[† ]On the 12th of May, 1657.
[12. ]Cavaliers was the name given to the royalist forces loyal to Charles I.
[13. ]John Thurloe (1616–68): secretary to the Council of State of the Commonwealth. His correspondence (1742), cited here, is preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and in the British Museum. Part of it was published in 1742 by Thomas Birch.
[14. ]The attempted emigration of the Puritan leaders is treated with considerable irony by Hume, who writes that they “had resolved for ever to abandon their native country, and fly to the other extremity of the globe, where they might enjoy lectures and discourses of any length or form which pleased them. The king had afterwards full leisure to repent this exercise of his authority.” HE, 5:241–42.
[15. ]For the incidents mentioned here, see HE, 6:53, 6:90.
[16. ]William Shakespeare (1564–1616), English dramatist and poet. Millar compares Cromwell to Shakespeare’s study of a tyrant and “machiavel,” Richard III. The play was first performed 1592–93, and printed 1597. Below, he extends the comparison to the contemporary French Revolutionary leader, Robespierre.
[* ]The same disposition to sarcastic humour has been exhibited in our day, in a political character, resembling that of Cromwell in many respects; I mean the famous Robespiere; an enthusiast, though of a different species; of a temper more gloomy, and marked with deeper lines of cruelty; not more scrupulous in betraying his friends; but steady in supporting that system which he originally professed to adopt, and as far as appears, uncorrupted by motives of pecuniary interest.—Dr. Moore’s Journal.
[[These are the final lines of Edmund Waller’s Panegyric, addressed to Cromwell (1656).]]
[17. ]Richard Cromwell (1626–1712), Lord Protector (1658–59).
[18. ]John Lambert (1619–83): parliamentarian soldier and, after 1655, one of Cromwell’s major-generals.
[19. ]George Monk (1608–70), a professional soldier, was initially a royalist during the Civil War, but was on the parliamentary side later in Ireland, Scotland, and during the Dutch Wars. He played a decisive role in the restoration of Charles II by marching on London in 1660, forming the Convention Parliament, and advising Parliament to invite Charles to return.