Front Page Titles (by Subject) Nedham and Mercurius Politicus - Excellencie of a Free-State
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Nedham and Mercurius Politicus - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
Nedham and Mercurius Politicus
Like Mercurius Britanicus in the first civil war, Mercurius Politicus spoke for the bolder spirits among Nedham’s employers. Within the new regime there were two opposing impulses. The first was a desire to entrench the revolution that had been achieved by Pride’s Purge, the regicide, and the abolition of kingship and the House of Lords. Those deeds, it was urged, should be remembered and celebrated in print, while membership of central and local government should be confined to men ready to endorse them. The nation should be bound by oath to support the Commonwealth. Royal statues and other visual survivals of monarchy should be destroyed. The opposite impulse was toward the broadening, not the restriction, of the regime’s base. Many Members of Parliament who had been expelled from the Commons at Pride’s Purge or had then voluntarily withdrawn from it returned to it after the execution of the king. Even among those who had remained at Westminster during the king’s trial, there were a number who had resented the purge and were troubled by the regicide. Returning members held those sentiments more keenly. They wanted to relegate the execution of Charles to the past and to heal the wounds that it had caused. The purge, they hoped, would be at least partly undone and an attempt would be made to return to the original, limited goals of Parliament in 1642, from which the regicide and the establishment of the republic had deviated.
In that contest John Bradshaw was a leading figure on the radical side. Milton’s and Nedham’s publications backed his stance.22 Like Britanicus before it, Politicus disparaged “lukewarm,” “neutral,” “moderate” men. It urged that power and voting rights should be the prerogative of the Commonwealth’s “party of its own,” “men of valour and virtue,” “sensible of liberty,” who had dared to carry out or endorse the regicide and who now resisted the temporizing instincts of their colleagues. Nedham hailed the memory of Pride’s Purge, that “noble act,” and of the regicide, so “noble” and “heroic an act of justice,” “one of the most heroic and exemplary acts of justice that was ever done under the sun.”23 To royalists, the regicide had been a deed of sacrilege against the divinely appointed ruler. Nedham, determined to strip kingship of its mystery, laughed at Charles’s heir, “young Tarquin.”
In the editorials of 1651-52 that would reappear in The Excellencie, Nedham developed and expanded the republican thinking that he had announced in The Case of the Commonwealth in 1650. Now The Excellencie’ s argument appeared in a sprightlier form, one designed to attract a wider readership than The Case. The learned apparatus of The Case was omitted. There were individuals in the Rump, chief among them Henry Marten, Thomas Chaloner, and James Harrington’s literary partner Henry Neville, who likely encouraged Nedham’s republican advocacy.24Politicus backed adventurous social and commercial policies that were pursued by those figures in Parliament. It also shared their irreverent wit and their detachment from the Puritan solemnity that characterized the run of parliamentary opinion. They were travelled men, of cosmopolitan outlook, ready to look beyond the traditions and perspectives of native political thought. Powerful as those Members of Parliament could sometimes be, they stood outside the parliamentarian mainstream. Nedham’s friend Milton noticed how few of England’s new leaders had been abroad.25 The nation, he believed, would never gain political health until it imported “ripe understanding and many civil virtues . . . from foreign writings and examples of best ages.”26Politicus concurred.
But would the majority in the Commons welcome Nedham’s editorials? And could his newsbook convert the public rather than antagonize it? Margaret Judson has observed that, as a rule, “republican ideology” had “only a minor role” in the literature written on behalf of the Rump.27 The republican arguments that Nedham first voiced in The Case of the Commonwealth may have been formulated in his mind long before its publication. Mercurius Britanicus had slyly cast admiring glances at the Dutch republic and other “free states.”28 In November 1646 Nedham contributed to a tract, Vox Plebis; or, The Peoples Out-Cry Against Oppression, Injustice, and Tyranny, which was written on behalf of the Leveller leader John Lilburne. There Nedham used arguments derived from the Discourses of Machiavelli. On that occasion he did not employ Machiavelli’s thinking to argue for kingless rule. However, he did deduce from it points that in Politicus would reappear, in similar language, to support that purpose.29 Nevertheless, it was not until 1650 that he espoused republicanism in print. Much of the republican material that would resurface in Politicus may already have been drafted when The Case appeared, or it may have been first written in the year or so after the publication of that tract.30 But it was not until September 1651, when Cromwell’s victory at Worcester achieved the final defeat of the royalist cause, that the republican editorials began. It seems likely that the “Discourse” of 1650 had tested the water and that only after Worcester was the water deemed warm or safe enough for the adventurous campaign of Politicus.31
The campaign was conducted against a background of mounting international self-assertion by the Commonwealth. Alongside its exploits on the battlefield, it had built a formidable navy and was ready to use it. In 1652 it embarked on an epic naval war with the Dutch, whose rapid rise to commercial and maritime prosperity had been the economic miracle of the age. Algernon Sidney (or Sydney), an energetic member of the Rump in its later stages, and a writer as eager as Politicus that the English should emulate the wisdom and virtue of republican Rome, would rejoice to recall in his Discourses Concerning Government, written under Charles II, the exploits of the Rump, which “in a few years’ good discipline . . . produced more examples of pure, complete, incorruptible, and invincible virtue than Rome or Greece could ever boast.”32 The republicanism of Politicus drew on the Commonwealth’s achievements too. Nedham had already proclaimed in The Case that England’s new rulers were in “every way qualified like those Roman spirits of old.” In 1652 Politicus avowed that England’s “high achievements” since “the extirpation of tyranny” “may match any of the ancients” (p. 145); in another publication of the same year Nedham described England as “the most famous and potent republic in this day in the world,” indeed, “the greatest and most glorious republic that the sun ever saw,” though he here made an exception of Rome.33
Yet if the editorials congratulated England’s new rulers, they also had less comfortable messages for them. The overt and primary purpose of Politicus, the one for which Nedham was paid, was to assist the entrenchment of the republic and the overthrow of its royalist enemies. He presented his proposals as means to “preserve” the Commonwealth from its enemies abroad, and as “banks” or “bars” or “bulwarks” against the return of monarchy. Behind his endorsement of the regime, however, there lay criticism of it, in which Nedham’s individuality of voice asserts itself. The Rump sought to preserve its power by clinging to the improvised settlement of 1649. That settlement, Nedham indicated, could not last. He made it clear that it was not enough for the Rump to have declared England a Commonwealth and Free State, as it had done in May 1649. The nation must become “free indeed” (pp. 46, 50, 139), “a state . . . really free” (pp. 45, 144, 149, 156). It must set aside its insular preoccupations and explore the histories of republics ancient and modern. It must emulate their virtues and shun their mistakes. It thus would not only secure liberty at home but would export it through its might and arms and ships, and thus free England from the threats posed by foreign kings. The Dutch war must be fought in the cause not only of national might and prosperity but of republicanism. Politicus yearned for the extinction of monarchs and of monarchical interests and instincts in the Netherlands, in Scotland, in France, and in Italy. Nedham’s statements on that theme mirror lines of the “Horatian Ode” on Cromwell’s return from Ireland in 1650 by Andrew Marvell, a poet whose writings bear many other resemblances to Nedham’s.34 Anticipating the emancipation of Scotland, France, Italy, and “all states not free,” the poem summons old visions, to which the abolition of monarchy gave a fresh intensity, of the liberation by English force of foreigners eager to rise against their native oppressors. Politicus beats the same drum.35
Nedham’s editorials roamed history for illustrations to support his thesis. In that practice he followed Machiavelli, to whose Discourses the editorials were indebted in form and content. In the popular mind Machiavelli’s was a dirty name. Nedham, like many other writers who learned from him, remembered to disavow the ruthless affront to political morality which Machiavelli’s The Prince, “that unworthy book” (p. 120), was commonly taken to constitute, though Nedham also contrived to turn Machiavelli’s depictions of statecraft to his own polemical uses. However, the Machiavelli who mainly interests Nedham is not the analyst of princely rule but the celebrator of republican virtue. Nedham’s historical examples were spread across a wider range of place and time than Machiavelli’s, but at the center of his historical attention, as of Machiavelli’s, was ancient Rome. There was nothing new in the drawing of parallels between English and Roman history. The political and imaginative literature of the Renaissance had often dwelled on them. But Renaissance writers had written under monarchy. Though they detected innumerable instructive resemblances of character or circumstance between the Roman republic and modern times, they discovered deeper and more pressing modern correspondences in the imperial monarchy, the empire that had succeeded the republic. By contrast Nedham, like Machiavelli, centered his arguments on that Roman republic, of which modern England could now be seen as a counterpart. In the spirit of Machiavelli he commends the “active,” “magnanimous,” “gallant” character of free citizens, their love of “glory and virtue,” their “lofty” aspirations and the “edge” to their spirits. He follows Machiavelli in linking republicanism to austerity, in observing the classical distinction between “liberty” and “license,” and in aligning freedom with “discipline,” “virtuous poverty,” “honest poverty” and the denial of “luxury.”36
Nedham follows Machiavelli more daringly on another front. Machiavelli had dwelled on the conflicts in republican Rome between the aristocracy, or the senatorial class or order, and the people. Nedham portrayed a parallel conflict in civil-war England. Machiavelli not only helped Nedham to free himself from insular and traditional ways of political thinking but assisted his emancipation from familiar habits of social thinking. The civil wars had not been fought in the cause of republicanism, but neither had they been wars between classes. They had been fought between sides whose leaders accepted the hierarchies and deferences of a society dominated by landlords and, in the towns, by aldermanic oligarchies. The wars had, it is true, provoked a great deal of social protest. The most conspicuous protesters were the Levellers, who in the second half of the 1640s assailed abuses of the legal system that favored the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor. They did not, however, think of themselves as contending for one order of society at the expense of another. It was Nedham who injected that perspective into political debate.
Nedham’s relations with the Levellers, being mostly hidden from posterity’s view, are a tantalizing subject. They went back at least as far as 1645, when he composed a preface to a tract written by John Lilburne, or written on his behalf.37 Nedham’s contribution to Vox Plebis, another pamphlet in Lilburne’s cause, followed in 1646. In his writings both for the royalists and for the Commonwealth, Nedham attacked and derided the Levellers, as his employers would have expected or required him to do. Despite his outward hostility, his accounts of them sometimes hint at a personal sympathy. In Politicus his withering assaults are aimed not at the Leveller program but at the “odious signification” so misleadingly carried by “the common usage and application” of the term (p. 48), which implied the levelling of property and the community of estates. In this he echoed the sentiments of the Leveller leaders themselves. For “Leveller,” though a convenient shorthand term for us, was a pejorative label, indignantly disowned by those to whom it was applied. No more than Nedham were the Levellers opposed to the tenure or protection of property. As a political party they were broken by the end of 1649, yet Nedham retained his sympathy for them. In Politicus he not only extended Leveller ideas but, innovating again, gave them a classical and Machiavellian framework.38 He also widened the readership for them. Acquaintance with classical history was not confined to the minority of the population who attended universities, even if popular knowledge of the ancient past was uneven in depth. Largely perhaps through Nedham’s influence, appeals to classical and especially Roman history became a familiar feature of popular literary production in the 1650s.39
In one sense Nedham’s championship of the people went further than Machiavelli’s. Although Machiavelli despised the parasitic gentry and favored the people’s cause, he maintained that Rome had thrived on the conflict between the two orders. The senators had thus been as necessary to Rome’s greatness as the people. Nedham at one or two points implicitly endorses that view, but his populism (as for simplicity we shall call it) had a still stronger partisan thrust than Machiavelli’s. He gives the term “the people” a double edge, which is achieved, like much else in his writings, by his talent for ambiguity. In his editorials the phrase can mean all the inhabitants of the nation, or it can exclude those who are socially privileged. The assertion in Politicus that “the original of all just power is in the people” was not in itself a populist claim. It echoes the resolutions of 4 January 1649 through which the Commons, whose members were mostly gentry, asserted its right, as the representatives of “the people,” to try the king. In the Rump’s thinking, the interests of “the people” are assumed to be those of their leaders. Likewise Nedham’s claim that “all states are founded” for the sake of “the people” was compatible with much parliamentarian argument of the 1640s that had had no contentious social dimension. Even so, like the Levellers, he presents Parliament as the servant, not the master, of the people, for “all majesty and authority is really and fundamentally in the people, and but ministerially in their trustees, or representatives” (p. 96). The ideas of consent and representation that he brings to his accounts of ancient republics owe much more to his own society than to classical thought. He places those principles at the center of his argument and gives them a socially radical dimension.40
Nedham does not count all adult males as “the people,” as one or two of the Levellers were ready to do. For him “the rabble” are beyond the political pale. Yet the tone of his statements frequently brings Leveller perceptions of the people’s rights to mind. Fluctuating and sociologically imprecise as his vocabulary is, it recasts the political contests of the time. The Rump, asserts Nedham, has removed “the name of king” but not “the thing king.” For “the interest of monarchy,” whose “custom” it “hath been to lurk under every form” of government, “may reside in the hands of many, as well as of a single person” (p. 79). It is discernible in oppression by nobles, or by “grandees,” as much as by monarchs. Only when the “interest” is “plucked up root and branch” will the “rights and freedoms” that befit a republic be secured. Those truths have been hidden, under monarchical or aristocratic rule, by the addiction to “custom” and the ill “education” that are fostered by governors who have kept “the people in utter ignorance what liberty is” (pp. 13, 30, 164).
Writing against a fluid political background, and for a regime within which the balance of power recurrently shifted, Nedham found imprecision and malleability of language indispensable tools. On one subject his ambiguities create perplexity, perhaps by design. In ancient Rome, he maintains, the initial rule of kings gave way, not to popular rule, but to the dominance of the senate. Although “the Nation” had been “accounted free” under senatorial rule, the people became “free indeed” only when they challenged it and established their own officers and their own power. In turn they were “wormed out” of their liberty at times when senatorial or noble “encroachments” undermined that achievement (p. 15). Other seventeenth-century writers took as their models ancient Sparta or modern Venice, republics renowned for stability. Those commentators distanced themselves from the memory of Athens, or at least from the anarchical aspect of its democracy. But in Nedham’s eyes the Spartan people were oppressed by “the pride of the senate.” The “multiplied monarchy” or “grandee government” of contemporary Venice left the people “little better than slaves under the power of their senate,” whereas Athens—on which Nedham hoped to write at length elsewhere—was “the only pattern of a free state, for all the world to follow,” having been free not only from “kingly tyranny” but from “senatical encroachments” (p. 11). In Rome the people’s liberties were won by the creation, in opposition to senatorial power, of “the tribunes,” “that necessary office,” and by the legislative role of “the people’s assemblies” (pp. 10, 26). Only then could Rome, which had long been “declared” a free state, be properly called one.
What then of England’s constitutional arrangements? Most of the time Nedham vindicates, at least implicitly, the principle of unicameral rule on which his masters had alighted. At times we might suppose his allusions to tribunes and popular assemblies to be intended to further that goal. After all, the House of Commons claimed to rule as the representative body of the people. Vox Plebis, the anonymous tract on Lilburne’s behalf of 1646, to which Nedham had contributed and which had attacked the jurisdictional powers of the House of Lords, had appealed to the House of Commons as “the most honourable tribunes of the people.”41 During the proceedings against Charles I, John Bradshaw explained that England’s parliament—which when Bradshaw spoke had been reduced to the Commons—was “what the tribunes of Rome were heretofore to the Roman Commonwealth.”42 Does Nedham mean, then, that the House of Lords has been England’s senate, and that in 1649 the Commons, England’s tribunes, rightly triumphed at the senate’s expense? Some passages of the editorials may have been prudently intended to allow for that interpretation, but there are more that confound it. In them Nedham makes it plain that the English “senate” has remained in being since 1649 and that its power and failings are the basic problem of the republic. The inescapable message, though he is careful not to spell it out, is that the equivalent to Rome’s senate is not the Lords but the Commons. Conventional parlance often referred to the Commons, flatteringly, as the senate.43 Nedham’s equation of the two is unflattering. He impels us to deduce that England will be truly free and have a true republic only when it has acquired some equivalent to Rome’s “necessary” tribunes and its popular assemblies. It is a revolutionary proposal, and to most or all members of the Rump it would have been a horrifying one. There is no surprise in its having been advanced only briefly and imprecisely.
Running throughout Nedham’s editorials is an implicit contrast between a truly free state and the oligarchical regime in power in England that claims to have created one. The contrast becomes explicit in a tract of 1651 by a collaborator of Nedham’s, Charles Hotham, a scholar of Cambridge University who was aggrieved by his recent removal from a post there. Hotham sets his ideal of “a right republical government” against the “absolute oligarchy of a Hogen Mogen” that is now in power in England.44 Nedham’s own purpose is clarified when we return to his relations with the Levellers. In raising the subject of Rome’s tribunes in Vox Plebis, the tract of 1646 written on Lilburne’s behalf, Nedham advanced an argument that strikingly anticipated his claims of the 1650s. The pamphlet recalled that after the expulsion of Rome’s “hereditary kings,” the Tarquins, “the nobility began to take upon them the rule of the people: and by a greater tyranny than the Tarquins had done.” So “the people,” “enforced by a necessity of their preservations,” “created Tribunes, as guardians of the publick liberty, whereby the insolence and arbitrary power of the nobility was restrained.”45
By 1653 Lilburne was himself making the same case in his own name. During the publication of the editorials of Politicus of 1651-52 he was exiled by the Rump. He went to Holland, and thence to Flanders, before returning to England in June 1653. In 1652, writing abroad, Lilburne praised the “notable preambles”—the editorials—of Politicus.46 They appear to explain the fascination he developed, during his exile, with classical history, about which he read “with so much delight and seriousness.” His chief inspiration was Machiavelli, whose books, “for the excellency and usefulness in corrupt times and places,” he discovered to be the best “for the good of all mankind” that he had read, worth their weight “in beaten gold” and “as useful, advantageous, necessary, and requisite to me, as a compass or perspective glass.”47 But Lilburne read Machiavelli through Nedham’s eyes, and he repeated Nedham’s arguments, often in Nedham’s wording. From the outset of its rule, Lilburne had regarded the Rump as the replacement of a regal tyranny by a parliamentary one. Now classical history proved to him that the people of England had even better reason than “the old plebeians, or common people of Rome” to “contest even to the death, for the election from amongst themselves of tribunes, or keepers, or defenders of the people’s liberties, indued with ample power, to preserve them against the annihilating encroachments, that their present tyrannical riders have already made upon them.” Thus must they assert themselves, as the Roman people had done, against “the greatest . . . patricians, noblemen, senators.”48
Nedham avowed that republics flourish when the interest of the people is “more predominant than the other” (p. 15). The people, “who best know where the shoe pinches” (p. 25), are equal, on their own, to the task of drafting and passing laws. Legislation, requiring as it does “no great skill,” is “the proper work of the people in their supreme assemblies” (p. 55). Yet there will remain a need for some institution, parallel to Rome’s senate, with which the machinery of popular involvement will “share” power. It will supply, as the Roman senate did, the “wisdom” that is requisite for the management of the executive and for the handling of “the secrets of government” (p. 15). In such statements Nedham qualifies his populism, perhaps with the aim of offering reassurance or concessions to his masters or to conventional opinion. In other passages, perhaps for the same reason, his republicanism is itself softened. Sometimes it seems that the modern deprivation of the people’s liberties has been brought about not by kingship itself but by the erosion of restraints imposed on it in earlier times. Nedham’s Machiavellian language is tempered, too, by a more comforting vocabulary, which promises the English not the animated political conflict that Machiavelli favored but the attainment of tranquillity and safety and the preservation of inherited “rights and liberties” (pp. 15, 98, 166). Machiavelli had insisted on the benefits brought to Rome by the “tumults” occasioned by its social and political divisions. To most readers in England, where fear of public disorder was an ancient and dominant feature of the political landscape, that was an alarming assertion. James Harrington, who followed Machiavelli on other fronts, renounced him on that one. Nedham by contrast does invoke Machiavelli’s teaching on tumults, yet his espousal of it is hesitant and qualified.
Even so, his claims for “the people” must have caused unease in the Rump. The unease would have been intensified by his appeal to disaffected members of the army, a body whose hostility to the Parliament grew during the period of the republican editorials and culminated in the coup of April 1653. Officers and soldiers saw themselves as champions or defenders of the cause of the people, which in their eyes the Rump was betraying. They also had grievances of their own. We know from other evidence that there was “murmuring” among the officers “that they are not rewarded according to their deserts,” that “they have neither profit, nor preferment,” that Members of Parliament were “engrossing all places of honour and profit to themselves.”49 Nedham recalled that in republican Rome the people had overthrown the monopoly of office held by the senatorial families. They had ensured that “the road of preferment lay plain to every man” (p. 28), and that “all places of honour and trust were exposed to men of merit, without distinction” (p. 29).
To the extent that the army stood for the Commonwealth’s “party of its own,” Politicus can be seen as its mouthpiece. Of the army’s political demands, none was keener or more prominent than its requirement that the Rump, the remnant of the Parliament that had sat since 1640, should dissolve itself. In its place there must be regular parliamentary elections that would root authority in the nation’s consent. “Roman stories,” urged Politicus, showed that the “people never had any real liberty” under “a standing power” (p. 10). For “the very life of liberty lies in a succession of powers and persons (p. 55)” and in the people’s possession of “a constant succession of their supreme assemblies” (p. 10). Nedham repeatedly insinuates that the Rump, in resisting the pressure to dissolve, is proving itself to be a “standing senate,” whose survival is incompatible with freedom. To the demand for fresh elections, however, there was an obvious objection. Would not an electorate so antagonistic to the Rump return a Parliament eager to destroy the cause for which the army had fought? Almost everyone accepted that former royalists would be disqualified from voting until the wounds of the recent conflict had healed. But what of Presbyterians and neutrals, who had themselves been outraged by Pride’s Purge and the regicide? Much depended on the outlook of Cromwell, lord general of the army, who was also the most powerful figure, if far from an omnipotent one, in the Commons. Recognizing the difficulties that elections would bring, he half-connived at their postponement, and by doing so incurred mistrust among the Commonwealth’s “party of its own,” which was generally less ready to acknowledge the problem. Nedham’s argument that the vote should be confined to those who had actively supported the parliamentarian war effort—the “party”—at least offered a straight forward solution. Though this proposal could not be expected to broaden the base of the Commonwealth’s support, it would remove the obvious impediment to the rapid dissolution of the Parliament for which Politicus pressed. The Rump was not convinced. In November 1651 the Parliament pledged not to sit for more than a further three years. For Nedham, that was too long.50
If the Rump remained in power, he warned, power would contract, if it had not already done so, into the hands of a clique of grandees. Naturally he did not say whom he meant, but a coalition of civilian and military grandees is perhaps the likeliest answer.51 It was not only the Rump, however, whose continuation in office Nedham challenged. Machiavelli had warned of the dangers to republican liberty posed when the power of military leaders is “prolonged.” His argument, which Nedham had taken up in Vox Plebis,52 appears again in Politicus, which repeatedly counsels against the “prolonging” or “continuing” or “protracting” of power, and against “continuing power too long in the hands of particular persons.” Nedham particularly warns, in his customary interlinear manner, against the extension of the authority of the lord general of the army. Cromwell would certainly have been one of the grandees he had in mind, for Cromwell had, on this front too, earned mistrust among the soldiery, where it was feared that his self-promotion would destroy the army’s political virtue. Nedham presents Cromwell as another Julius Caesar, whose command, like that of generals at other moments of its history, Rome fatally “lengthened.” In 1650 Marvell’s “Horatian Ode” warned that Cromwell might cross a Rubicon, “grow stiffer with command,” and acquire supreme rule.53 Nedham cites Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon to the same end (pp. 91, 98). It was after that event, he contends, that the bearing of arms, which hitherto had been a mark of citizenship, was “kept . . . out of the hands of the people.” On the same principle, intimates Nedham, Cromwell’s army might become a mercenary force, a “Praetorian” rather than a “popular militia” (p. 92).
While the editorials were being published, Cromwell was assiduously courting popular support by promises of social and legal reform.54Politicus allows us to understand his behavior as a bid for the power base from which to acquire single rule. Cromwell had indeed done heroic service for his country, as Caesar and other Roman leaders named by Nedham did for theirs, but it is precisely in the “ambition” of such men, and in the “temptation” to pursue it that will beset them, that the largest danger to liberty may lie. Caesar, after all, “who first took arms upon the public score, and became the people’s leader, le[t] in ambitious thoughts to his unbounded power” and “soon shook hands with his first friends and principles, and became another man: so that upon the first fair opportunity, he turned his arms on the public liberty” (p. 102). Likewise, “what more excellent patriot could there be than Manlius, till he became corrupted by time and power? Who more noble, and courteous, and well-affected to the common good, than was Appius Claudius?” (p. 27).
The danger to England is that the people’s “negligence, in suffering themselves to be deluded” will allow them to be “won by specious pretences, and deluded by created necessities” (p. 80) and that a “supposed great patron of liberty” (p. 97) will prove to be its enemy. Although Cromwell’s elevation would in the event be achieved through military coups, there seemed at least as much likelihood, during the period of the republican editorials, that it would emerge through the scenario against which Nedham repeatedly warns: the gradual contraction of power into a few hands and thence into a single person. The danger was the greater for being barely perceptible. Nedham recalls Tacitus’s description of the Emperor Augustus, who “never declared himself, till, after many delays and shifts, for the continuation of power in his own hands, he got insensibly into the throne” (pp. 94-95). There is also a more sinister parallel. In the opening issue of Politicus Nedham had described Cromwell as “the only”—that is, the outstanding or archetypal—“ Novus Princeps I ever met with in all the confines of history.” The words unmistakably alluded to the model of the “new prince” whose rule is the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Now, in 1652, the newsbook reproduced the chapter of The Prince that recalls the wicked devices by which the “new prince” Dionysius of Syracuse, the Sicilian tyrant of the fourth century bc, achieved and maintained his tyranny. When writing on the king’s behalf Nedham had explicitly compared Cromwell to Dionysius.55 He could not name him now, but discerning readers could hardly have missed the identification. It is heightened by Nedham’s recollection that Dionysius had won his tyranny by “cloathing himself with a pretence of the people’s liberties” and had been “by that means made their general” (p. 58).
Some of Nedham’s boldest observations about the protraction of Cromwell’s command were offered in May 1652 (pp. 81-82, 85-88). They were sharply topical, for in that month the Commons resolved that the office of the lord lieutenant of Ireland, a survival from the monarchy that he had acquired in 1649, “be not continued.”56 It was in May, too, that Lilburne mentioned the “notable preambles” of Politicus. Their warnings about Cromwell were the passages invoked by Lilburne, who suspected, as perhaps Nedham did, that the lord general’s foot-dragging over the holding of parliamentary elections derived from a fear that a newly elected parliament would feel more confident than the present one in resisting his own aggrandizement. Lilburne and the Levellers had long hated Cromwell, whom they believed to have turned ruthlessly against them; they had long been dismayed by the protraction of his military authority; they had long observed the “Machiavellian pretences” by which he advanced his own power.57 The terms “junta” and “grandee,” which Politicus aims at both him and the Rump, had been used to convey their own detestation of them. They had likewise directed the term “lordly interest,” which recurrently appears in Politicus, at Cromwell.58
Lilburne returned to those subjects in a tract of 1653, in passages that again deploy the arguments and language of Nedham’s republican editorials. “Great and glorious things . . . for the people’s good,” Lilburne writes, have been “pretended” by Cromwell, so that he might thwart the people’s hopes of “constant successive parliaments” and, “Julius Caesar-like,” usurp power for himself. Lilburne himself reproduced the chapter of The Prince about Dionysius of Syracuse—and made mischievous adjustments to it that heightened its pertinence to Cromwell.59 Lilburne’s literary campaign against Cromwell in 1653 included a public letter to “my very good friend” the Member of Parliament Henry Marten, who had long been a fellow sympathizer of Nedham’s. Marten acted as a teller against the prolongation of Cromwell’s lord lieutenancy in May 1652.60 In Marten’s papers there survives a manuscript that was composed, evidently with a view to publication or circulation, in the summer of 1653, shortly after Cromwell’s forcible expulsion of the Rump. Written, or ostensibly written, by a member of the Parliament, perhaps by Marten himself and certainly by someone who held a number of his views, the paper recalled that the Rump had “lived in perpetual apprehension of what is now happened.” The Parliament, the paper added, had brought destruction on itself by its elevation of Cromwell to supreme command of the army that occupied England and that conquered Ireland and Scotland. For “nothing did render the parliament more unfit to, and indeed more uncapable to settle the government than their putting all the power into the three nations into one hand,” a decision by which it was “manifested to the world” that the parliament “understood nothing of a Commonwealth but the name.”61 Its ignorance on that subject was Nedham’s complaint too.
Alongside Nedham’s indications that Cromwell was a “kingly aspirer” (p. 21) there lay another foreboding. In the weeks before the regicide, and on occasions in the years of the Commonwealth and then of the protectorate, a proposal surfaced, sometimes within Cromwell’s circle, sometimes outside it, that he or the republic should strike a deal with the exiled court. The outcome would be the return of the Stuart line, now or at some future date, on terms that would guarantee the survival of the parliamentarians, or Cromwell himself, in power.62 It was an unlikely prospect but, Nedham evidently sensed, not an impossible one. In February 1651, when the antagonism of his patron John Bradshaw to Cromwell was sharpening, Nedham published an editorial recalling the unscrupulous achievement during the Wars of the Roses of that self-interested deposer and enthroner of kings, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (p. 17).
Although mostly concerned with advancing a political program, the editorials of Politicus advance a religious program too. It is a no less radical one. On no subject was Nedham closer to Milton, whose demand for the separation of church from state is echoed in two editorials of Politicus.63 Though Nedham’s writing has none of the spiritual dimension of Milton’s, it shares his friend’s aversion to what the two men saw as the power and bigotry of the clerical estate, especially in its Presbyterian form. As in politics, so in religion, the rulers of the Commonwealth were divided. Most Members of Parliament wanted reform of the church, but within existing structures and conceptions of state control. Only a minority took Milton’s and Nedham’s more far-reaching position. The first of the two editorials appeared on 29 April 1652, just when the Commonwealth’s debates on religious reform had reached their decisive moment. In response to that crisis Milton wrote the sonnet to Cromwell that urges him to protect the passage of God’s spirit from the contaminations of the world. The second of the editorials, on 12 August 1652, was the last one that the newsbook would publish. Perhaps its passionately worded anticlericalism, which in its audacity recalls the suicidal attacks on Charles I in the last stage of Nedham’s earlier newsbook Britanicus, explains or helps to explain the demise of the editorials. Or perhaps Nedham already knew that his sequence of republican arguments, which he may anyway have felt to have run its course, was about to be terminated, and he decided to conclude with a defiantly explosive outburst. By August 1652 the intensification of divisions within the regime had paralyzed the government’s capacity for polemical initiatives. Henceforth Politicus confined its indications of opinion to the slanting of the news it carried.64
[22. ]LP, pp. 195-99.
[23. ]Ibid., p. 182.
[24. ]Ibid., pp. 73-75, 111.
[25. ]Leo Miller, John Milton and the Oldenburg Safeguard (New York: Loewenthal Press, 1985), p. 172.
[26. ]Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 8 vols., ed. D. M. Wolfe et al. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953-82), 5:451.
[27. ]Margaret Judson, From Tradition to Political Reality: A Study of the Ideas Set Forth in Support of the Commonwealth Government in England, 1649-1653 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1980), p. 11.
[28. ]Worden, “ ‘Wit in a Roundhead,’ ” p. 317.
[29. ]Nedham’s involvement in the pamphlet is evident not only from the distinctive style and vocabulary of the passage but from his re-use of material from it in later writings. LP, p. 42.
[30. ]H. Sylvia Anthony, “ Mercurius Politicus under Milton,” Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966): 593-609, at pp. 602-3.
[31. ]Material from the republican chapter of The Case would reappear in Politicus, but only after Worcester. Nedham reproduced a passage of it (p. 16; Knachel, pp. 116-17) in the editorial of 25 September 1651; and a further brief passage (claiming that virtues in hereditary rules are “very rare”: p. 41; Knachel, pp. 117-18) reappears on 5 February 1652. The second extract, and much of the first, would be reproduced in The Excellencie. Nedham thus published that material three times.
[32. ]Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1990), p. 216; compare ibid., pp. 143-44, 472.
[33. ]LP, pp. 182, 219; Epistle dedicatorie and p. 483, Of the Dominion of the Seas by John Selden.
[34. ]LP, chaps. 3-6.
[35. ]Ibid., pp. 67-69.
[36. ]Ibid., pp. 25, 186-87.
[37. ]Worden, “ ‘Wit in a Roundhead,’ ” p. 320.
[38. ]Mercurius Politicus was quoted in the cause of “honest Levelling” by Charles Hotham, Corporations Vindicated in Their Fundamental Liberties (1651), 22-33.
[39. ]Nigel Smith, “Popular Republicanism in the 1650s: John Streater’s ‘Heroic Mechanicks,’ ” in Milton and Republicanism, ed. David Armitage, Armand Himy, and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 137-55; Joad Raymond, “John Streater and The Grand Politick Informer, ” Historical Journal 41 (1998): 567-74. In 1654-59 various newsbooks alerted a popular readership to classical parallels to current affairs, though on a less ambitious scale than Politicus.
[40. ]David Underdown, Pride’s Purge (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 263.
[41. ]Vox Plebis (London, 1646), p. 58; see, too, Eric Nelson, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 91n.
[42. ]Milton, Complete Prose Works, 3:589n.; compare ibid., 3:46.
[43. ]See, for example, LP, pp. 149, 224, 347.
[44. ]Hotham, Corporations Vindicated, pp. 26-28, 33.
[45. ]Vox Plebis, p. 3.
[46. ]John Lilburne, As You Were ([Amsterdam?], 1652), p. 29; Rahe, Against Throne and Altar, p. 334. Samuel Dennis Glover, “The Putney Debates: Popular Versus Elitist Republicanism,” Past and Present 164 (1999): 47-80, valuably draws attention to the interest of Lilburne and other Levellers in classical history. See, too, Smith, “Popular Republicanism.”
[47. ]Lilburne, The Upright Mans Vindication ([London], 1653), pp. 7, 23.
[48. ]John Lilburne, L. Colonel John Lilburne Revived ([Amsterdam?], 1653), pp. 9-10.
[49. ]Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs, 4 vols. (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1853), 3:470; and see Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, 4 vols., ed. W. C. Abbott (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937-47), 3:57.
[50. ]His newsbook reported the decision with outward deference but with evident restlessness: Worden, Rump Parliament, p. 289.
[51. ]In 1653 Lilburne, drawing on a Roman example that Nedham also used, directed a similar point solely against military grandees: against not only Cromwell but the officers John Lambert and Thomas Harrison, whom, with him, he portrayed as England’s equivalent to the triumvirate of Octavian, Anthony, and Lepidus (Upright Mans Vindication, pp. 6-9). However, that was after the expulsion of the Rump, for which the three men had borne most responsibility. Edmund Ludlow, Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, 2 vols., ed. C. H. Firth (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1894), 1:346.
[52. ]Vox Plebis, p. 66.
[53. ]LP, p. 96.
[54. ]Ibid., pp. 94-95.
[55. ]Ibid., pp. 91-92.
[56. ]Journal of the House of Commons, May 19, 1652. I am grateful to John Morrill for discussions of this point.
[57. ]Walter Scott, ed., Somers Tracts, 13 vols. (London, 1806-13), 6:49.
[58. ]Ibid., 6:45.
[59. ]Lilburne, Upright Mans Vindication, pp. 6-8. See, too, Scott, Somers Tracts, 6:45, 168; The Leveller (London, 1659), pp. 80-89 (a tract published by Thomas Brewster, the publisher of Nedham’s The Excellencie in 1656); A Collection of the State Papers of John Thurloe, 7 vols., ed. Thomas Birch (London, 1742), 7:754.
[60. ]Journal of the House of Commons, 21 May 1652.
[61. ]C. M. Williams, “The Political Career of Henry Marten” (Ph.D. thesis, Oxford University, 1954), pp. 546-47.
[62. ]Whitelocke, Memorials, 3:373-74; James Howell, An Admonition to my Lord Protector (London, 1654); Cromwell, Writings and Speeches, 3:524-25.
[63. ]LP, pp. 249-54.
[64. ]Students of Politicus may wish to note a run of variant issues found at the Harvard College Library: see H. Weber, “On a File of Mercurius Politicus in the Harvard College Library,” Notes and Queries 164 (1933): 364-66.