“The deeds of the cursed and the conquered, that were wise before their time”. (William Morris, The Pilgrims of Hope).
300 years ago the first and so far the only English Republic came to an end, after 11 years of existence. In those years England, reduced to a state of impotence and contempt under Charles I, had suddenly become a great European power, and had initiated a policy of commercial and colonial expansion which was to last for over 250 years. Yet in May 1660, Charles II returned to England amid general acclamations, and the republican leaders were publicly hanged, disembowelled and quartered. The cynical and witty King observed that it must have been his own fault that he had been abroad so long, for he saw nobody that did not protest he had ever wished for his restoration.
There will be plenty of banalities talked this year about the suitability of monarchy to the British tradition, national character, etc., etc. It may be worth considering in the pages of the New Left Review why the English republic failed, and what happened to the republican tradition after 1660.
The Commonwealth was brought into existence in 1649 by men very few of whom were theoretical republicans. After Charles I had been defeated in the civil war, first the “Presbyterian” majority in the Long Parliament, then the “Independent” Grandees (who commanded the New Model Army, though they were only a minority in the House of Commons) tried to negotiate a settlement with the King. Charles, obsessed with the notion that his function was divine, and that his enemies needed him more than he needed them, played all parties off against one another and instigated a second civil war in 1648. Meanwhile, outside Parliament, outside the ranks of the men of property who had hitherto taken it for granted that ruling the country was their exclusive prerogative, a republican party had grown up—the Levellers. They drew their strength from those who had been the driving force in the war against the King—the artisans and small traders of London, the sectarian congregations of the capital, the Home Counties and East Anglia, and from the rank and file of the New Model Army, especially its yeoman cavalry. The Levellers called for abolition of monarchy and House of Lords, and for a wide extension and redistribution of the franchise so as to make Parliament representative of the men of small property; and for legal, social and economic reform in the interests of greater equality. In 1647 they came near to capturing control of the Army through an Army Council containing elected representatives of the rank and file.
The fact that Charles had provoked a second civil war greatly strengthened the hands of those who wanted to bring the Mam of Blood to justice. To maintain their own position, Cromwell and the “Independent” leaders opened discussions with the Levellers, envisaging a more democratic constitution. Meanwhile the King was hurried to the block, whilst the Levellers protested that he should be tried not by a military junto but by a court truly representative of the people of England. Once their coup had succeeded the generals believed they could do without the embarrassing support of the Levellers and abandoned all talk of democratic reform. The Leveller leaders were imprisoned, and in May 1649 a revolt of regiments sympathetic to them was suppressed at Burford.
So the English republic was set up and ruled by men who, like Cromwell, would have preferred constitutional monarchy. After the suppression of the Levellers, the Commonwealth had no popular basis. Its authority depended on the power of the Army, which was rapidly purged of democratic elements. The franchise was indeed redistributed (1653), but not widened. There were no legal, social or economic reforms to protect the small men. The government’s main achievements—the conquest of Ireland and Scotland, the aggressive commercial foreign policy— were opposed by the democrats. And these policies were very expensive. Together with the maintenance of a vast Army for internal police purposes, they necessitated far heavier taxation than any known under the monarchy. The taxes fell in large part on the men of small property.
But the men of large property too disliked this taxation and the Army’s dictatorship. In order to disband the Army they wished to establish a limited monarchy, whether with a Cromwell or a Stuart as sovereign was immaterial, though after Oliver’s death in 1658 the inability of his son Richard to control the Army drove many of his father’s supporters to look to the King over the water. The generals, more and more isolated, were forced (as in 1648–9) to turn to the democratic republicans for support. The men of property refused to pay taxes. The troops were forced to live on free quarter, and so property was further endangered. In the bitterly cold winter of 1659–60 prices soared and public order trembled in the balance. Shops could not be opened safely. The law courts ceased to function, and “where the law takes not place”, a gentleman noted, “there is no such thing as property”. Levellers reappeared in London. The rank and file of the Army began to organise again, as they had done between 1647 and 1649, Arms were distributed to the radical sectaries. Quakers were appointed J.P.s. “Many a time have I heard them say”, wrote Richard Baxter of the “rabble” in 1659, “ ‘It will never be a good world while knights and gentlemen make us laws, that are chosen for fear and do but oppress us, and do not know the peoples’ sores. It will never be well with us till we have Parliaments of countrymen like ourselves that know our wants’ ”. In that year it seemed for a moment possible that the world might indeed be turned upside down. “All this stir of the Republicans”, Baxter thought, aimed “to make the seed of the Serpent to be the sovereign rulers of the earth”; for it was a theological axiom with the well-to-do that “the major part are not only likely but certain to be bad”.
Saved From The Bloody Multitide
Baxter and his kind need not have worried so much. For 1659 was not 1649. The Leveller movement had disintegrated. John Lilburne, its chief leader, died in jail in 1657, a Quaker. Other leaders had got on in the world, by land speculation or as professional officers. Others again had abandoned politics, or entered into futile conspiracy, even with Royalists. Many of the disillusioned rank and file democrats had emigrated to America, and more were to follow after 1660. (Indeed democratic republican influences are easier to trace in the American colonies after 1660 than in England.) Other former Leveller supporters turned to the wilder forms of sectarianism, such as Fifth Monarchism, in the hope that Christ would himself intervene to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth, since human political action had failed. The bogey word in 1659–60 was “fanatics”, not Levellers: sectaries and especially Anabaptists and millenarians now led the democratic movement.
Nevertheless, contemporaries thought the alternatives were clear. A former Parliamentarian, Sir George Booth, in 1659 saw “a mean and schismatical party” threatening “the nobility and understanding commons”. (Sir George, who helped to beat the mean party, got a peerage in 1660). A royalist saw “the Anabaptists and their adherents” opposed by “those having great estates”. A Scot thought the alternative to a restoration of monarchy was the rule of armed Anabaptists, Fifth Monarchists and Quakers. The physician and biographer of General Monck put “gentlemen of good estates” against a “violent junto of robbers and republicans”. “The essence of a free state”, wrote a pamphleteer in 1660, was that the gentry must be “reduced to the condition of the vulgar”. Many men, Milton thought in April of that year, were prepared to prostitute religion and liberty because they believed that “nothing but monarchy can restore trade”. The Rev. Henry Newcombe was expelled from his living by the restoration government, and his became “the despised and cheated party”; yet when he looked back in 1662 he felt it had been worth it, since England had been saved from “a giddy, hot-headed, bloody multitude”.
So Charles II was restored not by popular clamour, as the textbooks suggest. He was restored by the men of property; by Monck, the one general who could pay his troops, in close co-operation with the City of London. The rumps that were roasted in the streets of London were paid for by rich citizens, and their money was well spent. Once monarchy was restored, former Cavaliers could help to take arms away from the “persons of no degree and quality” whom the republicans had armed, and restore them to “the nobility and principal gentlemen throughout the kingdom”. The writer is Clarendon, Lord Chancellor in the restoration government. “It is the privilege . . . the prerogative of the common people of England”, he told Parliament in 1661, “to be represented by the greatest and learnedest and wealthiest and wisest persons that can be chosen out of the nation: and the confounding the Commons of England . . . with the common people of England was the first ingredient into that accursed dose . . . a Commonwealth”. Clarendon was almost echoing what Ireton had told the Levellers at Putney 14 years earlier: that the rank and file Parliamentary soldiers had fought not for the vote, but to have the benefit of laws made by their betters in Parliament. Former Parliamentarians and former Cavaliers now spoke the same language against the radicals: and so did Charles II himself, who said “Without the safety and dignity of the monarchy, neither religion nor property can be preserved”. “The restoration”, Laski summed it up, “was a combination of men of property in all classes against a social revolution which they vaguely felt to be threatening”.
So the republic collapsed, ingloriously. A white terror followed. The savage legislation of the Clarendon Code expelled opponents of the monarchy from their natural strongholds, the government of the boroughs; and forced underground the sectarian congregations which had formed the revolutionary cells of the preceding two decades. The organisation of petitions by the lower orders was prohibited. The Act of Settlement of 1662 anticipated an Italian Fascist decree which authorised the police to drive back to his native parish any person who lacked visible means of support. A rigid censorship ended the relative freedom of political discussion which had existed in the sixteen-forties and had been regained in 1659–60. Printing, one of Charles II’s Secretaries of State declared, was “a sort of appeal to the people”. For 19 years after 1660 only government newspapers were published legally.
Nor should we underestimate the effectiveness of the deliberate propaganda of the Anglican Church, again restored to a monopoly position. “People”, King Charles the Martyr had observed, “are governed by the pulpit more than the sword in time of peace”; and the Church of England did its best. When the rebel Duke of Monmouth claimed in 1685 to die a protestant of the Church of England, a divine said to him on the scaffold “My Lord, if you be of the Church of England, you must acknowledge the doctrine of non-resistance to be true”. For 25 years every parson in the kingdom had thundered against resistance to the Lord’s Anointed. The widely read Anglican The Whole Duty of Man told the poor “to be content with whatever entertainment thou findest here [on earth], knowing thou art upon thy journey to a place of infinite happiness, which will make an abundant amends for all the uneasiness and hardship thou canst suffer in the way”. In 1652 the Digger Gerrard Winstanley had denounced priests who “tell the poor people that they must be content with their poverty, and that they shall have their heaven hereafter”. Why, Winstanley had asked, “may not we have our heaven here (that is, a comfortable livelihood in the earth), and heaven hereafter too?” One sees the advantage to the rich of the restoration of ecclesiastical censorship in 1660.
We can also perhaps understand the disgust and disillusion with which many of the democrats withdrew from a political struggle in which they felt they had been betrayed. After 1660 most of the sects decided that Christ’s kingdom was not of this world, and had enough to do to maintain a precarious underground existence, without indulging in political activity which would have exposed them to savage government reprisals. The hitherto bellicose Quakers issued their first pacifist declaration in January 1661, after the failure of a Fifth Monarchist revolt. Even this declaration was directed against acceptance of military service for Charles II, and was part of a campaign of passive resistance. The Quakers were still politically active in the sixteen-seventies, when William Penn was election agent for the republican Algernon Sidney. Only after the aristocratic Whigs had let them down in 1681 and 1685 did the Quakers turn to emigration, a refuge which they had previously condemned. Much of the Leveller tradition of equality and democracy was inherited and handed on by the radical sects, who exhibited magnificent courage in resisting persecution under Charles II and James II. But—in England if not in Scotland—it was for the most part a passive resistance. Bunyan still takes as his symbol of the common man a man with a burden on his back. But the burden falls off only in the presence of the cross, and Christian had left even his wife and children behind when he started on his pilgrimage. Some at least of those with whom Bunyan had served in the Parliamentarian armies had hoped to relieve other men of their burdens, as well as themsleves; and on earth too. By the time dissent won toleration in 1689 it had ceased to be politically dangerous. Those who benefitted by the Toleration Act were sober, respectable, industrious citizens, narrow, sectarian and unpolitical in their outlook. All but the most hypocritical “occasional conformists” among them continued to be excluded from political life and from the universities by the Anglican tests. So revolutionary Puritanism sank into nonconformity.
Yet though the republic collapsed in 1660, it had left its mark on men’s minds. Charles II might date his reign from 30 January 1649, and lawyers might speak of the years between 1649 and 1660 as “the interregnum”. But they could not be forgotten. They had shown that government could be successfully carried on without King or House of Lords or Bishops. Moreover, although the men who ruled the Commonwealth were not theoretical republicans, the Levellers, Milton and Harrington were; and their writings had been widely disseminated and discussed. There had been far more freedom of discussion in the sixteen-forties and fifties, and far more real popular participation in such discussion, at least in London, than ever before and ever again until the 19th century. Republicanism by 1660 was by no means a mere academic speculation. Rude and vigorous opposition to monarchy was expressed in an unmistakably popular idiom. “A pox on all kings”, said a London lady in 1662; “she did not give a turd for never a king in England, for she never did lie with any”. A glazier of Wapping, two years earlier, “would run his knife into [the King] to kill him”. He would gladly spend 5/- to celebrate Charles’s execution: “he did not care if he were the hangman himself”. Yorkshire yeomen in the early sixties said they “lived as well when there was no king”, and hoped to do so again. “Cromwell and Ireton were as good as the King”. “All is traitors that do fight for the King”. A Surrey man “hoped ere long to trample in the King’s and Bishops’ blood”. Very many similar remarks have survived, made by those ordinary people who, according to the textbooks, were delighted to see Charles II back. A constable who had helped to hand some regicides over for execution in 1660 found that in consequence he had “quite lost his trade among the factious people of Southwark”.
The Levellers Reappear
Men calling themselves Levellers were in revolt in Worcestershire in 1670, and men so called by their enemies figured frequently as bogies in political speeches and sermons. There were continuous plots—Venner’s rising in London and many other conspiracies in 1661; Tonge’s Plot in 1662, Yorkshire Plots in 1663 and 1665, the Pentland Rising in Scotland in 1666 (led by an old Parliamentarian officer), and supporting movements in England. Some of these conspiracies were no doubt fomented by agents provocateurs, freely used at this period; and the government for its own purposes certainly made the most of the danger of revolution. But the plots witness to the existence of a great deal of discontent. In 1668–9 the royal ministers Buckingham and Shaftesbury were said to be leading the old Commonwealth faction, and the Duke of Buckingham declared himself a republican. There was an organised illegal printing press, and continuous contacts were maintained between the underground opposition to Charles II and the exiles in Holland, Between 1678 and 1681, in the excitement of the Popish Plot, the Leveller sea-green colours reappeared in the streets of London: the Whig Green Ribbon Club took its name from them. The Rye House Plot of 1683 centred on a house owned by the former Leveller Richard Rumbold, famous for his dying words on the scaffold in 1685: “I am sure there was no man marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him”. (The sentence was quoted, whether consciously or not, by Thomas Jefferson a few days before his death in 1826. It was in fact a Leveller commonplace). Finally in 1685 Argyll’s invasion of Scotland and Monmouth’s of south-western England were both accompanied by many ex-Levellers and republicans, and won wide support among the common people. Their defeat marked the end of an epoch.
Men of Property Against the Mob
Throughout the generation 1647–85 the conflict continued between aristocratic and democratic republicans. We have seen how the two parted company after 1649. In 1660 even Milton, convinced republican though he was, thought it was necessary “to well qualify and refine elections: not committing all to the noise and shouting of a rude multitude”, but rather to a perpetual oligarchy: that this was the “ready and easy way to establish a free commonwealth”. Even Marvell, toughest of republicans under Charles II, had opposed the military leaders who tried to set up a republic in 1659. He was probably right to doubt their sincerity: yet it was these divisions that made the restoration possible. It is hardly a coincidence that two of the most prominent republicans were a Duke and an Earl, Buckingham and Rochester. There is no doubt about the strength of these men’s beliefs. Under Charles II Marvell wrote:
“England rejoice, thy redemption draws nigh;
Thy oppression together with kingship shall die.
A commonwealth, a commonwealth we proclaim to the nation,
The gods have repented the King’s restoration”.
“What can there be in kings divine?
The most are wolves, goats, sheep or swine. . . .
Then farewell sacred majesty,
Let’s pull all brutish tyrants down;
Where men are born and still live free,
Here every head doth wear a crown”.
“I hate all monarchs and the thrones they sit on. From the Hector of France [Louis XIV] to the cully of Britain [Charles II]”.
Yet such men, for all their courageous convictions, had no confidence in the democratic forces. Throughout Charles II’s reign, although the two wings of the republicans had to co-operate, there was latent conflict between them. During the Popish Plot Shaftesbury’s use of the London populace lost him much support among the propertied Whigs. Even so he drew back when Charles II called his bluff in 1681, and the apparently united Whig party collapsed. In 1685 Monmouth’s revolt was the last fling of the democratic cause, to which the weavers and dissenters of the southwestern counties rallied, and small traders like Daniel Defoe rode down from London to add their support. But the Whig gentry held aloof, and Monmouth was persuaded by his few aristocratic supporters to claim the crown in the hope of establishing his non-republican respectability. Disillusion with Monmouth, who grovelled to James II in a vain attempt to save his life, and Jeffrey’s ferocious Bloody Assizes so weakened popular republicanism that when James’s folly united the propertied classes against him, the way seemed clear for William of Orange and the aristocratic Whigs. Yet even at the end of 1687 Gilbert Burnet noted that “a rebellion of which he [William] should not retain the command would certainly establish a commonwealth”. Fortunately for them, the men of property invited William in time, and he brought a large professional army with him; so James could be hustled off the throne without danger of popular revolt. When Edmund Ludlow returned from his 29 years of exile, thinking the day of the Good Old Cause had dawned at last, he was promptly whisked out of the country at the request of the House of Commons. In Macaulay’s words, William “ordered the magistrates to act with vigour against all unlawful assemblies. Nothing in the history of our Revolution is more deserving of admiration and of imitation than the manner in which the two parties in the Convention [Parliament], at the very moment at which their disputes ran highest, joined like one man to resist the dictation of the mob of the capital”. This—written in 1848—makes the point that “our revolution” was opposed to and forestalled that of lower-class republicans. Henceforth monarchy was something very different from what it had been, since now it was subordinated to the laws voted by the representatives of the men of big property. 1685 was the last revolt of the men of small property.
The men of small property: here we have the clue to their failure. As capitalism developed, more and more peasants and artisans were to lose their economic independence. This process was very slow and longdrawn-out; but the small proprietors were at no stage a secure foundation on which to build a revolutionary party. Even in the 17th century they may not have formed a majority of Englishmen. Even the Levellers would have excluded paupers and wage-labourers from the franchise: and Gregory King’s table of 1696 suggests that these may have amounted to half the population. There was sense in their exclusion, since men wholly dependent on their social superiors for livelihood could not vote freely by show of hands. (The republican Harrington’s much-derided schemes for voting by dropping balls into urns were intended to solve the problem of secret voting for a largely illiterate population.) Yet by refusing the vote to half of their countrymen, the Levellers placed themselves in a position different only in degree from that of the Grandee Independents. They spoke in the name of “the people”, but they meant only some of the people. When the Diggers (who called themselves True Levellers) advocated the abolition of private property in the name of the unpropertied, the Leveller leaders had sharply disavowed them. So in a sense they justified the sleight of hand by which Locke in 1690 spoke of “the people” when he meant the men of big property. He had a big blind spot, the Leveller a little blind spot.
Yet in another sense the Levellers were right in their day and generation. The Diggers were a nine days’ wonder: they did not succeed in organising the unpropertied. Of those entirely dependent on wages Mr. Ogg rightly says that “neither contemporary nor modern economists can explain how they lived”. Baxter’s poor husbandmen in 1691 were “usually so poor that they cannot have time to read a chapter in the Bible or to pray in their families. They come in weary from their labour, so that they are fitter to sleep than to read or pray”. The whole circumstances of their existence made such men incapable of political understanding and therefore of any political action except merely negative rioting. It needed another century and a half of capitalist development (and of painful struggles for trade union organisation, the first evidence for which dates from the later 17th century), before the urban poor were transformed into a politically effective working-class movement.
Failure of Popular Republicanism
So we should see the conflict between aristocratic and democratic republicans in the 17th century as a tragedy on both sides—a tragedy not without its similarities to those which have been enacted in eastern Europe in our own days. The Levellers spoke in the name of a people who would have disavowed them. When they put forward proposals for a limited widening of the franchise, their enemies distorted this into a demand for full manhood suffrage. Given the pressure of landlords and parsons on the poor and illiterate and ignorant, it could not unreasonably be argued that manhood suffrage would lead to a restoration of the monarchy, and that any significant extension was a gamble. The aristrocratic republicans despaired of the people. Yet what was their alternative? Military dictatorship, which Hugh Peter had hoped to use “to teach peasants to understand liberty”, was used by the generals to further their own ambitions. After 1660, and still more after 1688, the aristocratic republicans had no real programme, only an attitude. They felt that the flummery of monarchy was an insult to human dignity; but in society as then constituted only a minority of the population was in a position to exercise free political choice; and most of this minority wanted a king to help to keep the lower orders in their place.
The most remarkable analysis of the reasons for the failure of the 17th century popular movement was made in a letter written to Milton in 1659:
“You complain of the non-progressency of the nation, and of its retrograde motion of late, in liberty and spiritual truths. It is much to be bewailed; but yet let us pity human frailty. When those who had made deep protestations of their zeal for our liberty . . . being instated in power shall betray the good thing committed to them . . . and, by that power which we gave them to win us liberty, hold us fast in chains; what can we poor people do? . . . Besides, whilst people are not free but straightened in accommodations for life, their spirits will be dejected and servile. . . . There should be an improving of our native commodities, as our manufactures, our fishery, our fens, forests and commons, and our trade at sea, etc., which would give the body of the nation a comfortable subsistence.”
But that was to look far ahead into the capitalist epoch. The years between the defeat of the Good Old Cause and the rise of the labour movement is the age of the “mob”. (The word does not occur before 1688). Between 1660 and 1688 the London populace was Whig and anti-papist; after 1688 mobs could sometimes be used by Tories and even Jacobites, because the establishment was now Whig. It is significant that the weavers of Southwark, old-style craftsmen and dissenters almost to a man, opposed the church and king mobs in 1709. Outside London, in the early 18th century, the Jacobites found support from the Derbyshire miners (whose ancestors had been Levellers in 1649), and from the weavers of the Monmouth area who had not lifted a finger for William of Orange in 1688. Until the rise of true radicalism in the late 18th century, “Tory democracy” was an uneasy and wholly negative alliance of the two defeated classes of the 17th century—the backwoods gentry and the lowest urban classes— against their bourgeois and aristocratic rulers.
So by 1685 democratic republicanism, the democracy of the small proprietors, was dead; in 1688 aristocratic republicanism, the republicanism of the men of big property, had achieved most of its aims within the framework of limited monarchy. Aristocratic republicanism lived on in the early 18th century rather as an academic speculation, a philosophical attitude, than as a political creed. The Calves Head Club celebrated the anniversary of Charles I’s execution “in scandalous and opprobrious feasting and jesting”. But it is significant that a calves head dinner on that day in 1728 (in Oxford, of all revolutionary centres!) shocked Whigs no less than Tories, since the Hanoverian King was now himself a Whig. Six years later the London Club came to an end when its members were rabbled.
Aristocratic republicanism has recently been studied by Professor Caroline Robbins in her recent book, The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman (though she does not herself distinguish adequately between democratic and aristocratic republicans). She shows how the torch was handed on from the 17th century republicans by men like William Molyneux, Robert Molesworth, Walter Moyle, John Trenchard, John Toland the deist, to the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution, themselves republicans without much use for democracy, and to Price and Priestley.
The most important figure in the tradition was Mrs. Catherine Macaulay, who from the seventeen-sixties published her very popular History of England in the 17th century, which revived memories of the 17th century revolutionaries just when the Wilkesite agitation was reviving popular radicalism. Henceforth the appeal to 17th century example was common form among the radicals. Mrs. Macaulay’s brother, Alderman Sawbridge, was Wilkes’s right-hand man in the City; she herself was actively involved in radical politics in England, and intimately associated with republican leaders in America and France. In the 17th century the leading examples of successful republics—Venice, the Netherlands—had been burgher oligarchies; in the 18th century the American and French Revolutions offered models of more democratic republics. Tom Paine preached a republicanism of the common man appropriate to this new atmosphere. It made the republicanism of the aristocratic Commonwealthsmen an armchair anachronism. Paine’s works were eagerly read by those plebeians to whom the aristocratic republicans had never cared or dared to appeal. The way lay forward through the Corresponding Societies of the ’nineties on to Chartism and the working-class movement, in which at first republicanism was widespread. The Chartists Bronterre O’Brien pronounced the working class’s epitaph on the aristocratic republicanism of the 17th and 18th centuries:
“Even the establishment of our ‘commonwealth’ after the death of Charles I was a mere political revolution. It gave parliamentary privilege a temporary triumph over royal prerogative. It enabled a few thousand landowners to disenthral themselves from the burdens of feudal services, and to throw upon the people at large the expenses of maintaining the government. . . . For the millions it did nothing.”
It is not the job of the present article to discuss why the republicanism of its early days was abandoned by the labour movement in England. Let us rather recall that what survived of the popular republican tradition in England in the difficult years after 1660 was handed on in discussions in coffee-houses, which emerged as centres of seditious activity as the noncomformist congregations subsided into sectarian isolation and political inactivity.