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Marchamont Nedham and the English Republic - Marchamont Nedham, Excellencie of a Free-State 
Excellencie of a Free-State: Or, The Right Constitution of a Commonwealth, edited and with an Introduction by Blair Worden (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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Marchamont Nedham and the English Republic
English republicanism was a creation, not a cause, of the English civil wars.2 Before them, it is true, we can find much skepticism about princely rule, much complaint about the tendency of such rule to degenerate into tyranny, and much hostility to the evils of princely courts. We also find ample interest in the politics and virtues of ancient republics, as well as a thorough acquaintance with Machiavelli, their most adventurous modern interpreter. Yet those preoccupations were compatible with loyalty to, even veneration of, the English monarchy and the rights bestowed on kings by law and custom. The Parliament that resisted Charles I, known to posterity as the Long Parliament, sat from 1640 to 1653, though it was purged of its royalist members in 1642 and of the more cautious or conservative of its parliamentarian ones in 1648. During those thirteen years the revolution was transformed. It took directions, and found targets, that would have been unimaginable to its initiators. Men who went to war with Charles I in 1642 sought to preserve what they took to be the ancient constitution and the shared authority of king and Parliament. In their eyes Charles had subverted that authority. He had brought novel and illegal challenges to the liberty of the subject, to parliamentary privilege, and to the rights of property. Charles himself believed the Parliamentarians to be the innovators. In the year or so before the outbreak of war, they certainly assumed startling powers, both legislative and executive. Yet their initiatives were emergency measures, justified in Parliament’s view by the king’s desertion of his regal obligations. Parliament’s target was the misrule of a particular king, not the office of kingship.
No one in 1642 would have predicted the abolition of the monarchy seven years later. That development was the result of political events, not of political theory, which through the 1640s struggled to keep up with those events. The new model army, which by 1646 had won the first civil war for Parliament, was radicalized in its aftermath. It was further radicalized by the brief but bitter second civil war in 1648, which it likewise won. Now the army turned on its political masters, most of whom it suspected of entertaining too much respect for the defeated king and too little for the soldiery. In the fall of 1648, while a parliamentary delegation negotiated with Charles for his restoration, the army resolved to move against him. In December it occupied London and forcibly purged the Commons in the operation that would become known as Pride’s Purge, after Colonel Thomas Pride, who carried it out. Next month the minority of Members of Parliament whom the army had allowed to remain, or the Rump as they came to be derisively called, erected a court to try the king. The court convicted Charles as a traitor to his people and as a tyrant who had declared war on them and bore the guilt of the blood they had shed. He was executed on 30 January 1649.
How would he be replaced? When, forty winters later, Charles’s younger son James II lost his throne, his opponents had an alternative monarch in the Dutch Prince William of Orange, who was ready to rule with his wife, James’s daughter Mary. In 1648-49 no member of the Stuart family, outraged as it was by what it viewed as the murder of its leader, would have accepted enthronement at the hands of the murderers. Charles’s opponents were too divided to choose a monarch from among themselves, a move that anyway would have commanded no sense of legitimacy. Yet republican rule would be illegitimate too. The army’s political leaders, Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, did not seek it. In 1647 they had for a time been willing to restore the king himself, on terms in some respects more generous than Parliament’s. It is true that by that time there were figures within the army’s ranks, and among its civilian allies, who were sporadically expressing or implying an aversion to kingly government. But they did not devise, if indeed they even conceived of, an alternative system of rule.
Only when Charles was dead did the new rulers confront the question of constitutional settlement, and then in slow and gingerly fashion.3 Republican rule was improvised. It emerged not by design but by default. On one reading, the cloudily worded preamble to the “act abolishing the office of king,” which the Rump passed in March 1649, repudiated kingship only in the unlimited form to which Charles had allegedly aspired and left open the possibility of a return to the “mixed” monarchical constitution that Members of Parliament had believed themselves to be defending in 1642.4 A further two months elapsed before the Rump passed an act declaring England “to be a Commonwealth and Free State.” This time the government could not even agree on a preamble to vindicate the measure, which was consequently published without one.5 The Rump would not have been able to reach any decision about the constitutional future at any point during the four years of its power, since from 1649 to 1651 it was preoccupied by the challenge of conquering Ireland and Scotland, where royalist armies kept the Stuart cause alive. Only with Cromwell’s defeat of the invading Scots at Worcester in September 1651 was the regime secure. When Parliament’s attention then turned to the settlement of England, divisions opened within it. The fatal split was between Parliament and its army. In April 1653 the army, which had forcibly destroyed the king, used its force to destroy the Parliament that had opposed him.
From 1649 to 1653 England was ruled not under a new constitution but by what was left of the old one. That rule was unicameral, for not only had kingship been abolished but at the same time so had the House of Lords, Parliament’s upper chamber. The Lords would never have passed the legislation that sanctioned the trial of the king. To remove that obstacle the Rump had resolved on 4 January 1649 that the Commons, “being chosen by, and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation,” and were entitled to legislate unilater-ally.6 Yet the Rump’s claim to represent the people was contradicted by the absence from the Commons of that majority of representatives whom the army had purged, and by the nation’s plain hostility to a regime whose very existence, which only armed force could sustain, was at odds with the respect for the ancient constitution on which parliamentarianism had taken its stand in the civil wars.
How might the country be brought round to kingless rule? Not, the government knew, by professions of the legality of the regicide or the republic. The Rump in effect acknowledged its own illegality. In the aftermath of the regicide it drew on an argument that was widely circulated in 1649-52 and that found its most famous and accomplished expression in the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes (1651). Hobbes wrote, not to justify a particular form of government, but to explain the obligation of subjects to obey any government, whatever its origins, that has acquired the protective power of the sword. In treatises and pamphlets written on the Rump’s behalf, the same principle was adopted by a number of lesser-known writers.7
None of them articulated it more effectively than Marchamont Nedham, whose short book The Case of the Commonwealth of England, Stated was published in May 1650 and republished later in the year. “The power of the sword,” explained Nedham, “is, and ever hath been, the foundation of all titles to government,” and those who do not submit to its jurisdiction have no claim to “the benefits of its protection.”8The Case has two parts. The first sets out five principles that vindicate the claims to obedience demanded by the Rump’s command of the sword. The arguments of the second part warn readers against the inducements of enemies who conspire or wish for the Rump’s overthrow. Each of four hostile groups, “the royal party,” “the Scots,” “the English Presbyterians,” and “the Levellers,” is accorded a chapter of refutation. The final chapter of part 2, offered “by way of conclusion,” takes a different course. Titled “A Discourse of the Excellency of a Free State Above a Kingly Government,” it urges the English to set aside their inherited prejudice in favor of monarchy and to grasp the superiority of republican rule. Nedham, who was an innovator on many intellectual and literary fronts,9 brought his powers of innovation to the “Discourse.” He used the title page of The Case to draw particular attention to the “Discourse” and its theme.10
Later in 1650 the young writer John Hall, who like Nedham was an employee of the Commonwealth, took up the republican case in his work The Grounds and Reasons of Monarchy. His career was so intimately bound with Nedham’s, and the arguments and language of the two men resembled each other so often, that their writings can be hard to tell apart.11 In 1650 Nedham and Hall introduced republicanism to English politics.
Marchamont Nedham (or sometimes “Needham,” a spelling that probably indicates the contemporary pronunciation of the name, which likely would have rhymed with “freedom”) is a figure troubling to readers who expect political thinkers to pursue a disinterested search for truth. He is the serial turncoat of the civil wars. In the first war he wrote for Parliament. In the second he wrote for the king. In 1649 he was caught printing royalist material and was threatened with a charge of treason. He averted it by switching his allegiance to the new rulers, who rescued him from penury with a handsome stipend. In the 1650s he supported every regime in its turn: the Rump; Barebone’s Parliament, the assembly with which Cromwell replaced the Rump in July 1653 but which endured only until December of that year, when it, too, succumbed to a military coup; the protectorate, which succeeded Barebone’s and which held power, first under Oliver and then, after his death in September 1658, under his son Richard, until Richard’s deposition in May 1659; then the Rump again, which was restored by the army that had expelled it six years earlier; then the army after it had expelled the Rump again in October 1659; and once more the Rump when it resumed power at the end of the same year. Thereafter he supported the restored monarchy.
Nedham airily acknowledged his transfers of allegiance. Most of his political writings— The Excellencie of a Free-State among them—were published anonymously, but in 1650 The Case of the Commonwealth, his first treatise for the republic, appeared under his own name and drew attention to his conversion. “Perhaps,” its opening words declare to the reader, “thou art of an opinion contrary to what is here written. I confess that for a time I myself was so too, till some causes made me reflect with an impartial eye upon the affairs of this new government.” The passage would reappear almost verbatim in a publication of 1661 that rejoiced in the king’s return.12
Nedham’s career, which repeatedly made him the friend or enemy of politicians and writers with whom he had at least once had the opposite relationship, challenges the categories of allegiance and conduct that govern our perceptions of both the political and the literary history of the civil wars. Nedham did have one point of consistency. It lay in his aversion, which he shared with Milton, to Presbyterianism, the parliamentarian grouping that had favored the return of the king in 1648 and that was the common enemy of royalism and the republic. He detested it less for its political goals than for its commitment to religious intolerance and for the scope it gave to clerical dogmatism. Yet no other enemy of Presbyterianism swung so blatantly between the alternatives to it. To contemporaries he was “that speckled chameleon,” “a mercenary soul,”13 “a cat that (throw him which way you will) still light[s] on his feet.”14 Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of Nedham merely as a hack polemicist, tamely obedient to the demands of his successive employers. If he needed their payment and protection and the outlets his masters gave him for literary expression, the masters themselves needed his exceptional skills of persuasion. Even as he supplied the propaganda they required of him, he found a means of asserting, with resourceful obliqueness, an individuality and independence of voice. Where, if anywhere, his own convictions lay cannot be authoritatively decided. What we can say is that within each public position he adopted, and most of all in his republican writing, he contrived to open a gap between opinions he was called on to propagate and ones he simultaneously fostered. “In our late wars,” he recalled in 1652, “the pen militant hath had as sharp encounters as the sword, and borne away as many trophies.”15 No writer, not even the dazzling royalist journalist Sir John Berkenhead, who was a rival of Nedham’s in the first civil war and a collaborator in the second,16 bore off as many trophies as he. Nedham won them largely through his management of news. But it was his polemic that politicians valued or feared most. His success enabled him to test to the limit the patience of his employers, or anyway the more conventional or mainstream of them, who found in his writings much to anger or trouble them.
Nedham was born in Burford in Oxfordshire. After a period at Oxford University and at Gray’s Inn, London, he rose to prominence in his early twenties as editor of the weekly parliamentarian newsbook Mercurius Britanicus, which began in 1643. The collapse of censorship in 1640-42, and the impact on the population of the civil wars and their attendant controversies, created a wide literary market that thrived on the vivid reporting of news and on plain, direct, earthy reasoning. The genre suited Nedham’s gifts, as did the war of pamphlets that paralleled that of the newsbooks. Britanicus championed the radical element within the parliamentarian cause. It attacked “lukewarm wretches,” “moderate friends,” and “neuters” who regretted the outbreak of the war or who wanted to end it on terms that would leave the king scope for renewed misrule. The war, Nedham urged, must be fought to the finish. He risked Parliament’s displeasure by indicating that Charles might be deposed and replaced by his eldest son, the future Charles II. In 1645-46, as the war neared its end, Nedham went too far. Parliament, in its dealings with the king and in its depictions of him, had clung to the conventions of deference, referring reverently to “his majesty” and mainly blaming his misrule not on him but on evil advisers around him. Nedham, however, wrote of Charles’s “guilty conscience” and “bloody hands.”17 Parliament’s response was to close down Britanicus and have Nedham briefly jailed.
Now Parliament discovered the force of his motto, Nemo me impune lacessit: no one strikes me with impunity. First he lent his pen to the emergent Leveller movement, which was protesting the emergence of a parliamentary tyranny in place of the defeated regal one. Then in August 1647 he wrote, possibly with the connivance of the leaders of the new model army,18The Case of the Kingdom, Stated, a tract designed to facilitate negotiations between the army and the king through which both sides hoped to outmaneuver the Presbyterians. By the next month he was in the king’s employment. Charles made him editor of a new weekly newsbook, Mercurius Pragmaticus, which would run until 1649, and whose professed aim was “to write his majesty back into his throne.” It was secretly written and published in London, a city that Parliament ostensibly controlled. It did not advance a royalist theory of government. Nedham’s substantial essays in political theory were all written on the parliamentarian side. The weapon of Pragmaticus was satire, a talent that Nedham exuberantly aimed at his Puritan and parliamentarian former employers.
His transfer of allegiance to the Commonwealth in 1649 was contrived by John Bradshaw, who had presided over the trial of the king and was now president of the executive arm of the regime, the council of state. Nedham became—if he was not already—an intimate, devoted friend of Bradshaw’s19 and of Bradshaw’s equally devoted associate, the poet John Milton, who was the council’s Latin Secretary. Soon Nedham and Milton were literary partners on the Commonwealth’s behalf. In June 1650, a month after the appearance of Nedham’s The Case of the Commonwealth, the former editor of Mercurius Britanicus and Mercurius Pragmaticus launched a third newsbook, Mercurius Politicus. Milton, on the state’s behalf, was soon supervising the production of Politicus and working closely with Nedham in the preparation of its content, which frequently echoed prose written by Milton himself on behalf of the regicide and the republic.20 From September 1650 on, material from The Case began to appear as weekly editorials (an anachronistic but unavoidable term) in Politicus. Anthony Wood, whose every political instinct was repelled by the newsbook, conceded that it made Nedham “the Goliah of the Philistines . . . whose pen was in comparison with others a weaver’s beam. ’Tis incredible what influence [it] had upon numbers of inconsiderable persons.”21 Most of the material in The Excellencie of a Free-State first appeared four years earlier in weekly editorials of Politicus, between September 1651 and August 1652. That period and the developments of 1649-51 which preceded it are the first of two contexts that shall be explored in order to grasp the purposes of Nedham’s republican arguments. The second is the period of the protectorate preceding the publication of The Excellencie.
[2. ]I offer accounts of seventeenth-century English republicanism in David Wootton, ed., Republicanism, Liberty, and Commercial Society, 1649-1776 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994), chaps. 1-4; and “Republicanism, Regicide and Republic: The English Experience,” in Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, 2 vols., ed. Martin van Gelderen and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1:307-27.
[3. ]I have described the politics of the Commonwealth period in The Rump Parliament 1648-1653 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
[4. ]S. R. Gardiner, ed., The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, 1625-1660, 3rd ed., rev. (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 385-86.
[5. ]Ibid., p. 388.
[6. ]Journal of the House of Commons, 4 January 1649.
[7. ]Quentin Skinner, “Conquest and Consent: Hobbes and the Engagement Controversy,” in Visions of Politics, 3 vols. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002-3), 3:287-307.
[8. ]Knachel, p. 5.
[9. ]See p. xci, n. 259.
[10. ]Knachel, p. 1; compare ibid., pp. 116-17.
[11. ]Hall’s political writings and their affinity with Nedham’s are discussed in David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics 1627-1660 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), and in LP. For Hall’s career and writings see also Nicholas McDowell, Poetry and Allegiance in the English Civil Wars (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[12. ]The True Character of a Rigid Presbyter (London, 1661), preface.
[13. ]LP, p. 27.
[14. ]Quoted from the fourth page of (the confusingly paginated) A Word for All: Or, The Rumps Funeral Sermon (1660) in Paul A. Rahe, Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory Under the English Republic (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 177.
[15. ]Epistle dedicatorie in Of the Dominion of the Seas by John Selden, trans. and ed. Nedham (London, 1652).
[16. ]Peter W. Thomas, Sir John Berkenhead 1617-1679: A Royalist Career in Politics and Polemics (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1969).
[17. ]Worden, “ ‘Wit in a Roundhead,’ ” pp. 315-16.
[18. ]LP, p. 183.
[19. ]Ibid., pp. 45-47.
[20. ]Ibid., chap. 9.
[21. ]Wood’s account of Nedham is found in Anthony Wood, Atheniae Oxonienses, 4 vols. (London, 1813-20), 3:1180-90.