Front Page Titles (by Subject) George Lawson, Conscience Puzzle'd - The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, vol. 1
Return to Title Page for The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
George Lawson, Conscience Puzzle’d - Joyce Lee Malcom, The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, vol. 1 
The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, 2 vols, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
George Lawson, Conscience Puzzle’d
[George Lawson, d. 1678]
Subscribing the New Engagement; in the Solution of this Quaere:
Whether a man that hath taken the
Oaths of Allegiance, and Supremacy, the Protestation and Covenant, may, upon the alteration of the Government from a Monarchy into a Free State, subscribe this ensuing Engagement?
I A. B. declare, and promise to be true and faithfull to the Commonwealth of England, as it is now established without King and House of Lords.
Love no false Oath: for this is a thing that I hate, saith the Lord.
Rom. 14.22, 23.
Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.
And he that doubteth, is damned if he eat.
Printed in the Yeer, 1650.
One of the most remarkable tracts published in defense of the Commonwealth and the Engagement is the tract reprinted below. The Engagement, an oath of loyalty to the new government, had been especially crafted to enable individuals to swear to it even if they had reservations about the legitimacy of the regime. Nevertheless it caused great consternation. Until 2 January 1650 the Engagement had only been required of officeholders, barristers, and other specific groups. Thereafter the Engagement was imposed upon the entire male population over the age of eighteen. There is some uncertainty about the date on which this anonymous pamphlet appeared. It is dated 1650, but George Thomason, a contemporary bookseller and preeminent collector of civil war tracts, claimed it appeared on 20 December 1649. In either case, the tract was intended to prepare the public to accept the requirement.
The author of the tract draws upon a whole battery of arguments to persuade his readers that they could take the Engagement without qualms. Among these he includes the notion that all governments are equally lawful. He demonstrates how the language of the Engagement can be interpreted in such a way that any honorable Englishman might take it in good conscience. But what makes the essay so striking is the writer’s unblinking use of conquest theory. He accepts the royalist notion that the English are now a conquered people, then concludes that as such they must obey the conquerer. It is a Hobbesian argument presented a year before the publication of Leviathan. Little wonder the tract was anonymous. It appeared in only a single edition.
A case has been made for the authorship of George Lawson, a minister whose works have begun to attract considerable scholarly attention. Lawson was a staunch supporter of Parliament and served as rector of More in Shropshire during the Commonwealth. We know little about him today, despite the interest in his work. He was a correspondent of Richard Baxter, the influential Presbyterian clergyman and author. Baxter seems to point to Lawson’s authorship of the present tract when he reports that he had seen a manuscript of Lawson’s with arguments in favor of taking the Engagement. Among Lawson’s known works are “Examination of the Political Part of Hobbes’s Leviathan,” published in 1657, and “Politica sacra et civilis,” in defense of resistance, published in 1660 and reprinted in 1689.
I A. B. declare and promise, That I will be true and faithfull to the Common-wealth of ENGLAND, as it is now established without King and House of Lords.
The Question is, Whether a man that hath taken the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy, the Protestation, and Covenant, may upon the alteration of the Government from a Monarchy into a Free State, subscribe this Engagement.
There is no doubt, but unengaged men may: All Governments being of themselves equally lawfull. And, were we upon the point of choosing a Government, we know no reason to compell us to pitch upon a Monarchy more than a Common-wealth. And (whatever may be said in Law for the childe’s virtuall obligation to the Oaths of this nature, wherein his father was personally engaged) we see no reason in Divinity, but our children, who never were engaged by the Oaths, Protestation, and Covenant above-mentioned may (when they shall come to yeers of discretion) oblige themselves either by promise, or oath of fealty unto this Government.
But the Question is concerning Engaged men: (as all, but a very few, of those, who are liable to this Subscription, are).
Answer to this may be made in the affirmative, upon two Concessions.
First, if the words of the Engagement import nothing contrary to those Oaths, Protestation and Covenant.
2ly, If (upon supposition that they do import something contrary to those Oaths, &c.) it may be made good unto us, that the obligation of our former Oaths, &c. doth cease upon this new Establishment.
First, If the words of the Engagement import nothing contrary unto those Oaths, &c., As,
First, If by Common-wealth be meant the whole company of men and women, both of higher and lower rank, contained within the bounds and territories of these Dominions. So we were wont to call the Common-wealth in the time of Monarchy, unlesse when we took it for the Civill State, as contra-distinct unto the Ecclesiasticall. And, if it have that large signification here, and if the words (as it is now established) be to be understood adversativè, and not reduplicativè, and so binde us to be faithfull to the Common-wealth (in this sense) Licet stabilitae, and not quâ stabilitae absque; Domino Regis, &c.1 it will be nothing contrary to our Oaths and Covenants to subscribe thereunto. For unto the Common-wealth (in this sense) we must be faithfull, whatsoever Government it be under. And he that will not be true and faithfull to this Common-wealth, now it is without King and House of Lords, was never (conscientiously) faithfull to it, when it was subject to a King, and House of Lords.
And we are somewhat inclined to think, that this may be the meaning. Because not only all of lower rank, but also all of superior rank (as the Speaker, and the House of Commons, the Lord President, and the Councell of State, the Lord Generall, and Councell of War, &c.) are enjoined to subscribe. If they (or any of them) be the Common-wealth here meant; we somewhat strange at the Injunction. Our Kings were never wont to swear fealty to themselves, or Monarchy. If it may be declared that the words are intended in the sense above specified, we beleeve the Engagement cannot want Subscribers. But,
2ly, If the words (Common-wealth of England) be taken for a certain State of Government, as it stands contra-distinct to Monarchy (as it is generally conceived they are) then (without perjury) engaged men cannot subscribe thereunto, unlesse they fetch some help from the exposition of the words, True and faithfull.
First, If the words (True and faithfull) be to be understood only negatively, and oblige a man only, not to be false, or treacherous to, or turbulent in the Common-wealth: we conceive, that a pre-ingaged man may (with a safe conscience) subscribe to this present Engagement. Insomuch as whatsoever we were formerly engaged unto was to be compassed by all lawfull wayes and means, by every man in his vocation and calling. But for any private man by treachery or turbulency, raising tumults and factions to disquiet the present peace (though it be to the attainment of those ends whereunto he was preingaged) is to do evill that good may come thereby, out of his calling and vocation to act for a publick good, which no man (without an immediate call from heaven) hath warrant to do. So that, if it be declared that no more is intended by the words, than what may be comprehended in the negative sense of them, we shall not refuse to subscribe the Engagement, though it be to a Common-wealth, as it stands contra-distinct to Monarchy.
2ly, If the words (true and faithfull) be to be understood positively (yet in a strict sense) so as to oblige us to submit and yeeld obedience to this State of government in licitis, honestis & necessariis, we may (notwithstanding our former Oaths) subscribe thereunto. For, as for those things that come within the number of necessaria, necessarie duties to be performed to God, we are obliged unto them, though we were never enjoined them by men, whose command puts a tie upon us, as subjects, but such as is of inferior nature to the tie which God’s command puts upon us, as creatures and Christians. And though we obey not the Command (meerly) for the Civil Sanction’s sake; yet we hold ourselves bound to reverence the Civill Sanction so much the more for the Command’s sake. And as for those things which come within the number of licita & honesta, things lawfull and honest, though not necessary, we count ourselves obliged to the performance of them for the Command’s sake (meerly). Uncommanded, we may neglect them, because not necessary: but commanded, we shall not refuse to observe them, because lawfull. “But we trust (in the meanwhile) that none will be so irrationall, as to bring that yoke upon us, which neither we nor our fathers were ever able to bear: viz.: to enslave us to the performance of meer indifferent things, as necessary duties, where the performance of them doth not necessarily argue us good subjects, or good Christians.” But,
3ly, If the words (true and faithfull) be to be understood positively, and in a large sense, so as to oblige us to assist, and defend with our lives and fortunes the present Establishment, against all whatsoever (though it be the Parliament of England itself) that shall (hereafter) endeavour by lawfull means to introduce a Monarchy, or any other State of Government in this Nation; we humbly conceive that (without perjurious forcing of our Consciences) we cannot subscribe hereunto. For this is expresly against the words of our former Obligations, wherein we are bound with our lives, power, and estates, to maintain and defend the power and priviledges of Parliament.2 And this were to pawn our souls to oppose a lawfull Government in doing a lawfull thing.
Secondly, If (upon supposition that the words of the Engagement do import something contrary unto those Oaths, &c.) it may be made good, that the Obligation of our former Oaths and Covenants doth cease upon this new establishment. This is the grand Quere.
First, We do acknowledge, that some things, whereunto we formerly have been obliged, are (by the wonderfull providence of our God) rendered infeazible and impossible to us: viz.: such as concerned the person of our late King, &c. God hath disobliged us from such: and our hands are upon our mouthes, because God hath done it.
2ly, But yet there are other things, that are left by the providence of the same God feazible and possible, as, the exclusion of the Popes and forrain Princes and States’ Supremacy, and intermedling with the affairs of this Kingdom, the extirpation of Popery, Prelacy, superstition, heresie, schisme, profanenesse, &c. as may be seen in the particulars of those Oaths, Covenant, and Protestation. Some of which seem to crosse the very intention of this present Engagement, as that particular of our swearing, to bear faith and true allegiance to the King’s Heirs, and lawfull Successors, &c. Unto such things as these, we are still bound, if there be not sufficient reason alledged for our disobligation to those Oaths, by virtue of the present Establishment.
Now we conceive there may be three grounds, whereupon a people may hold themselves dis-obliged from their Oaths to former governments, upon the succession.
First, If those Oaths were vincula iniquitatis, (i.e.) if they did oblige men unto any Government that is of itself unlawfull, and contrariant to the rule of God’s Word. When Monarchy shall be made good to us to be so, we shall not refuse to engage against it.
2ly, In case the alteration be made by such, who, by the fundamentall Laws of the Land, have the power of making such alteration. Which power, by the Statute of 13 Eliz. is expresly conferred upon the three Estates in Parliament. If this alteration come to us with such an Authority, we hold ourselves disobliged from our Oaths to all former Establishments, and are ready to subscribe.
3ly, In case of Conquest; when an over-ruling power (by force of Arms, or otherwise) shall conquer a Nation, and render, as well the people unable to maintain their former Government, and Governors, as the Governors to defend and protect their people, in the pursuit of their Oaths, Covenants, and Obligations to them; Then we count it lawfull for a people to make the best conditions they can with the Conquerors, to desire protection from them, and promise subjection to them. And the reason is, because all former Obligations either of the Governors to the Governed, or the Governed to the Governors, did extend no farther than the power of the obliged on both parts. Which power, on both parties, being, by a totall Conquest, over-come by a third party; the obligation to the mutuall exercise of that power must needs cease, because the power itself is ceased.
This Case if it be ours, and it be declared, avowed, and owned that we are a conquered Nation; We are readie to make the best conditions we can for ourselves. And the former power (under the shadow whereof we breathed) being vanished, whilest we cry Quarter, and look for protection from the succeeding Power, we declare, and promise that we will be true and faithfull thereunto in all things, whereby we may not draw upon ourselves the guilt of disobedience unto God.
[1. ]Stability is permitted, but without any stability for the Lord and King.
[2. ]The author is referring to the “Protestation of the House of Commons, 3 May 1641,” in which the members protested against the supposed designs of priests and Jesuits to undermine the Protestant religion, subvert the fundamental laws of England and Ireland, and cause dissention between king and people and between Parliament and the army. The protest included an oath to defend the Church of England, the power and privileges of Parliament, and rights and liberties of the subjects. In addition the Engagement seemed to contradict the Solemn League and Covenant of September 1643, which pledged subscribers to preserve the rights and privileges of parliaments and to preserve and defend the king’s person and authority. See Wing E2211.