The English Revolution and the Genesis of Modernity
by E. John Winner
This is first of two essays, concerning the events of the English Revolution of the 17th century. Why should these events concern an audience primarily interested in philosophy and philosophy’s concrete relations with contemporary culture and politics? The immediate answer to this is quite easily pronounced in two names: Hobbes and Locke. We should all know that the contemporary Western mode of national republic, including representative democratic institutions, derived largely and most directly from the so-called ‘social contract’ theory expounded by several philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, and among anglophones the two principle contractarians are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Put simply, contractarianism is simply the theory that a state forms by general agreement of those acquiring citizenship within it: for Hobbes this is largely a matter of preventing mutually assured destruction in “a war of all against all,” while for Locke it is a matter of achieving the mutual benefits derived from respecting the natural rights of rationally self-interested individuals. Like many others, I prefer Hobbes’ analysis of the motivations behind the modern state, but can’t really go along with the authoritarian conclusions he derives from it. The more charitable Lockean implications of a constitutional, representatively elected government are not contradictory to the Hobbesian analysis, which in itself says something about the flexibility of Locke’s thesis.
Discussions of Hobbes and Locke are often phrased in the general terms that they used to elucidate their theories. In other words, there is logic at work in their writings, and so the texts are open to analysis and can be applied logically to individual cases, to see how well the theories they express, taken as such, hold up. But while interesting and productive, this is somewhat wrongheaded. Both Hobbes and Locke wrote in response to the concrete reality of the events of the English Revolution — Hobbes while the events were still unfolding, Locke in the years immediately following. Social Contract theory begins, at least for the English, as a meditation on what went wrong with the English Revolution. If nothing had gone wrong, England would be a republic today, and if everything had gone wrong, it would not be the parliamentary monarchy that it actually is.
But the English Revolution is interesting for more reasons than the political philosophy to which it gave birth. It resonates across history: in the many revolutions that followed; in the military dictatorships we’ve suffered; and in the representative democracies that still remain our best hope for a civilized society of free men and women. The English Revolution foreshadowed many things, some obvious, as those I’ve mentioned, some subtle and enduring, as we see from the Religious Right, or in the rise of autocratic businessmen to political power. So it must be remembered, if we are to understand these developments and more.
- Follow the Money
The Thirty Years War began as a conflict between Protestant and Catholic principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, over the right of religious self-determination against the Empire’s sudden turn toward (Catholic) uniformity. By the end of it, however, it was clear that the dynastic families of Europe, despite their own religious preferences, were really simply engaged in their age-old struggle for supremacy over the continent. Nothing made this clearer than the shifting alliances of France, occasionally fighting for Catholic allies, sometimes for Protestant ones. The War also saw the ascendancy of mercenary armies, and whatever their religious profession, mercenaries fight primarily for pay. The real importance of religion in the war was that it could be used to motivate mass involvement, demonstrated by the occasional conversion, from one religion to the other, of various princes, strictly for political purposes.
England, under the reign of the Stuarts, James I and Charles I (committed through marital ties to the Protestant Palatinate of the Rhine), did not fare very well during the Thirty Years War. The English policy was poorly guided by the Duke of Buckingham (rumored to be James’ last lover), a favorite adviser to Charles. By the time England withdrew from the War, exhausted, the King was broke, the Kingdom in a growing state of instability, with soldiers returning from the Continent defeated. (Buckingham evaded a Parliamentary trial with the King’s assistance, but was assassinated by a disappointed soldier named Felton, who was hanged for murder, but whose name was celebrated throughout the Kingdom.) Even as Charles faced disappointment on the Continent and growing disaffection at home, problems began brewing with the Scots to the north: they had developed a strong commitment to Presbyterianism, which was in the process of reconfiguring Scotland politically. Charles was committed to the Church of England, and to the principle of the “divine right” of a king to rule absolutely. Were the process of succession to result in a bad monarch, he or she would be punished by God, leading to replacement by a virtuous monarch. Of course, this was all nonsense: it would be a whimsical, vicious God who would use assassination, bloody civil wars between monarchial factions, the slaughter of children, and near incestuous marriages – all of which occurred during the War of the Roses – as a procedure to arrive at a single monarch capable of ruling wisely.
At any rate, even as England gradually withdrew from the Thirty Years War, the difficulties with the Scots – and then with the Catholic Irish – proved more tenacious. The need for military action continued, and military action requires men and supplies and therefore, money.
Several centuries earlier, in the feudal era, monarchs confronting similar challenges could defer the expenditure of royal wealth through demands on the landed aristocracy, pledged to them to expend the wealth to supply men and materials. For England, this had begun to change with the confrontation between King John and his Barons in the 1200’s, resulting in the Magna Carta. Almost immediately nullified, then re-ratified, revised, amended, expanded, retracted, and occasionally even forgotten over the centuries since, the Magna Carta established the principle that the King was answerable to a collective of those most immediately effected by his policies. Initially this meant the aristocracy, but eventually – especially following the redistribution of formerly clerical lands during the reign of Henry VIII – this included the gentry with large land-holdings. It was thus that non-aristocrats found themselves with real political influence.
Although the language of Magna Carta has the King, as appointed by God, “granting” the right of council to the social elite, it does so in perpetuity. Thereafter, once Magna Carta had been validated through the actions of those concerned, the rights and liberties therein were accepted as established. Various Kings attempted to abrogate them on occasion, as did Charles I. But there was a problem. Despite Magna Carta’s language, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it had been drawn up at the proverbial point of a sword, during an ongoing, ugly conflict between the King and the Barons, and reinforced through similar conflicts throughout the years. In other words, it was already established by the 17th century that the real power behind Magna Carta and its patchwork appendages was the willingness of the elite to assert their rights by force of arms.
Popular resistance to monarchial policy grew ever more overt during the eleven-year period that Charles attempted to govern the realm without Parliament. Charles had accepted, begrudgingly, a Petition of Right from Parliament that reinforced and expanded the basic principles of Magna Carta; but soon dismissed Parliament. The principle right that had emerged from the council of Barons was control over the raising of funds by systematic and agreed-upon taxation. Ruling without Parliament, Charles attempted to expand existing taxes and resurrect antiquated ones; to raise funds without Parliamentary agreement. When this failed, he established martial law and demanded “forced loans” from the gentry. It didn’t work. Martial law was poorly enforced and not well-received. More and more of the gentry simply ignored the demand for taxes or openly resisted it. Finally, Charles realized that personal rule without some agreement with the ruled was ineffectual and recalled Parliament twice. The second time, the so-called “Long Parliament” (because never properly dissolved until the Restoration), proceeded to issue the Grand Remonstrance, a listing of complaints against the King (it tactfully attributed the failure of his rule to his ministers, but no one was fooled), and passed a bill denying the King the right to dissolve Parliament without Parliamentary agreement. Although the Civil War is generally held to have started with Charles calling for troops to gather at Nottingham, the revolution had already begun.
- Will of the People
What we’ve seen so far is the way events unfolding toward revolution revealed new social conditions that were either undoing the expectations of the participants or continuing old tensions, but in new formations. The transition to a monied economy, wherein the standard of wealth was realized as a portable, easily exchanged symbolic representation, distributed power to non-aristocratic sectors of society while imposing new demands for wealth production and distribution. Technically, the English were enjoying an unprecedented era of affluence, but the fluidity of this new economy meant that large numbers of people were either coming up short, or on the verge of it, including the King. And though no one doubted that legitimacy and justification for political action needed somehow to derive from the Christian faith, the multiplication of competing sects with differing perspectives on precisely what such justification consisted of, combined with the somewhat casual way religion was used politically among the aristocracy, washed out as incoherence and laid the foundation for the development of secular government.
Most of this simply unfolded of its own accord. That is, most of the innovations enacted during this period, and in the revolutionary era that followed, were accomplished in reaction to arising conditions, guided by people’s faith and their trust in inherited customs, as they interpreted them. The Revolution produced only one truly proactive innovator worthy of note: the former gentleman farmer from the Fen, driven by religious conversion to throw himself into the politics of his day, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was to experiment and innovate throughout his career: as Parliamentarian; as military commander; as leader of a coup d’état; and as Lord Protector. Many of these experiments were notable failures: some oppressive, even cruel; some simply misguided. But some left legacies that were useful to the reconstruction of English politics over the next two hundred years.
To my mind, the most important and interesting of these innovations came in the early years of Cromwell’s Revolutionary career: The New Model Army. Cromwell began forming the New Model after the Battle of Edgehill, a defeat for Parliamentary forces that lacked discipline, leadership, and tactical guidance. Partly supported by donations from the faithful of surrounding parishes, Cromwell went home to raise a horse regiment that would be disciplined and well-trained. Cromwell would ride with them, proving an accessible leader with whom formalities were easily forgone, and in the battles that followed, he would demonstrate tactical brilliance. The troops were uniformed (the exception rather than the rule in English armies of the day), marched in close formation, and were prohibited from engaging in plunder. More importantly, the stratification of rank was not dependent on social status but on perceived merit. A baker could rise to commissioned rank as easily as a large land-holder, much to the ridicule of the Royalist aristocrats and the gentry in Parliament. Cromwell also introduced an equally significant religious toleration into the culture of his regiment. Although the hated Catholics were excluded and Cromwell eventually had difficulties with Presbyterian officers, his regiment included representatives from most of the Protestant sects of the time, including such radicals as those precursors of modern democratic theory, the Levelers and the Fifth Monarchists (“Christ, not man, is king”). Cromwell famously wrote: “I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.” England finally had a military that was concerned with a collective effort for a shared cause, rather than stratified militias reflecting particular interests.
The times were ripe for such innovation. In 1644, the gathered Parliamentarian militias of the Eastern Association, under the command of the Earl of Manchester, suffered a series of setbacks, revealing that they were poorly organized and poorly led. A possible defeat at Marston Moor reversed into a victory only through the intervention of Cromwell’s horse regiment. In Parliament, there followed an acrimonious quarrel between Cromwell and Manchester, ultimately leading to the Self-Denying Ordinance that prohibited Members of Parliament from commission in the Army, thus relieving Manchester of his command. An important exception was made for Cromwell, who thus retained his Parliamentary influence as well as expanded influence over the military. Lord Fairfax would be given command of the Army, but Cromwell was recognized as its heart and mind, so to speak. The military itself was restructured along the lines Cromwell had established for his own regiment. The Parliamentarian forces no longer presented a patchwork collective of regional or privately financed militias, but a national army, among the first in modern Western history.
After the first of the Civil Wars, as it became clear that the captured King was no longer able to mount any further military campaign, there was some talk in Parliament about disbanding the army, a routine matter in any peace following major conflict. Unfortunately, the soldiers had never been properly paid, and considered themselves still under service. Furthermore, the Army now had quite a number of Protestant faithful who felt themselves invested in the final outcome of the conflict, whatever “just” settlement could be made between Parliament and the monarch. Consequently, England not only found itself with a national Army, but with a standing Army, one that would not be dispersed. Further, the Army had ceased to be the action-arm of political forces, it became itself a substantial political force in its own right, which it announced to Parliament in the “Solemn Engagement” of 1647. The soldiers, drawn from a wider demographic than Parliament, had become political activists, and in the Putney Debates of August of the same year, Cromwell and other high-ranking officers met with representatives of the more radical elements of the Army, to discuss what kind of new constitution might be desirable in any settlement with the King. These debates produced two documents, one largely composed by the officers, the “Heads of the Proposals,” and one by the more radical elements, “Agreement of the People.” Elements of the former later resurfaced in the “Instrument of Government,” the purported constitution of the Protectorate. The latter, amended over time, contained ideas resurrected throughout various reformations of English common law from the mid-1700s on.
Charles reportedly told people that he much preferred the “Heads of the Proposals” to constitutional reform offerings from Parliament itself, but he wasn’t being honest. He recognized the tensions developing between Parliament and the Army and sought to increase them. In captivity, the King never negotiated with Parliament in good faith. Rather, he stalled for time, while negotiating secretly with Scottish, Irish and French agents, seeking someway to resurrect military and political hope for his cause. By 1648, these negotiations and a brief escape by the King sparked a second Civil War. The Army was furious at this and done with the King. When military leaders learned that Parliament was likely to continue negotiations and preserve the monarchy, they flexed their political muscle in the only way soldiers really can, i.e. through a show of force. On December 6, 1648, General Thomas Pride led his troops into the House of Commons and physically ejected all Members known or suspected to support such further negotiations. Disregarding the House of Lords (which they would later disband), the remaining members of the House of Commons – the so-called Rump Parliament – proceeded to put the King on trial for treason.
Because the Revolutionary era became an embarrassment to the English after the Restoration, Charles I has been given much respect for his performance at the trial. He did at least make his position quite clear: The monarch was chosen by God and thus, above any man-made law. Consequently, there was no legitimate means of holding him to account. It is hard to see why any modern person would perceive this as a brave stand leading to martyrdom, but one reads it in books, and sees it on stage, TV, film: Charles, the “tragic figure,” worthy of a tear in remembrance.
Far more important historically and far more meaningful for the world in which we still live is the justification given by John Bradshaw, Lord President of the Court of Justice that tried Charles:
Sir, the difference has been: who shall be the expositors of this law, sir? Whether you and your party, out of courts of justice, shall take upon them to expound the law, or the courts of justice who are the expounders — nay, the sovereign and highest court of justice, the Parliament of England, that is not only the highest expounder but the sole maker of the law. Sir, for you to set yourself with your single judgment, and those that adhere unto you to set themselves against the resolution of the highest court of justice — that is not law. Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England. For, sir, as they are those that at the first (as other countries have done) did choose to themselves this form of government, even for justice’s sake, that justice might be administered, that peace might be preserved, so, sir, they gave laws to their governors, according to which they should govern. And if those laws should have proved inconvenient or prejudicial to the public, they had a power in them, a power reserved and innate to alter them as they should see cause. 
No one is above the law. That may not be the will of God, but it can be the will of the people. Gottlob Frege once remarked: “’The will of the people’ can serve as an example [of an ‘ambiguous expression’ lending itself to ‘demagogic abuse’]; for it is easy to establish that there is at any rate no generally accepted reference for this expression.”  One can see the reason for such caution, although carrying it too far might produce a kind of unrealistic “rhetoraphobia.” It is true that “will of the people” rolls easily off the tongues of demagogues both Left and Right, with nary a pause to consider the depths sounded in the expression. Yet history shows us some of those depths, and some of the dangers in ignoring them. On January 30, 1649, the head of Charles I was severed from his body by the blow of the executioner’s axe. Afterward, the office of King was abolished, and the Commonwealth of England declared a republic. The Civil Wars had reached their apotheosis in Revolution. Although monarchial apologists, both in England and on the Continent, continued to quack on about “divine right,” the age of absolute monarchy had entered its terminal phase. And the modern liberal state began its slow, painful birthing, which seems unfinished still today.