The democratic spirit and the English civil war, Commonwealth and Protectorate

Stuart  society  was a world on the  physical,  economic  and  intellectual  move  and waiting to move faster if  the  right  engine  appeared.  The civil wars of the  1640s was  that  machine.

Representative  government  is  one  thing,  democracy  quite  another. That did not come to England in its formal form of  a full adult franchise  until the twentieth century. But  for a  brief  period in the 1640s  a franchise for the  House  of  Commons  broader  than any used  before the  late  nineteenth century was  more than a pipe dream.

The  Civil War and  its republican aftermath, the Commonwealth  and  Protectorate,  changed  English politics utterly.  It brought the end of claims by the English crown to  Divine  Right  and absolute  monarchy.  It  promoted  the political interests  of  the aristocracy and  gentry  as  a class.  It forced those on the Parliamentary side to exercise  power  on their own responsibility.  It created  a  political class  which  saw politics as something  they  could  control rather than merely be part of as an adjunct to the crown.  It raised  the idea that there should be a law superior to  that which even  a  parliament  could  pass.  It began the constitutional process which resulted in cabinet government. It  laid  the  foundations for  the  formation  of  political parties as we know them. In short,  it planted the seeds of  modern representative government.

Into this  new  world  were  cast men whose political philosophies  ranged from acceptance of the divine  right  of kings  to unyielding communists. In the middle were  those, such as Cromwell,  who though socially conservative, realised that  power  and political interest had shifted not  merely from the king to Parliament,  but also in some sense  to an appreciably broader circle of people than before. Such people were  willing to extend the franchise to a  degree,  although still restricting it to those with property for fear that the poor  would  dispossess the haves if they had  the  power  to elect  and that those with no material stake in  the  country would have no sense of responsibility and duty.  

But that was insufficient from many,  especially those  who fought on the Parliamentary side in the wars,  and  something else  occurred  which was to be  even more momentous  in  the long  run. The belief that men  generally  should  only  be  ruled  by  those  they had  themselves  elected became  a serious political idea.

That  the idea should find expression as a serious  political idea in the 1640s was,  of course, partly a consequence  of the disruption of society  by  civil war,  but that was  more an opportunity rather than a reason.  Innumerable civil  wars all over the world  have come and gone without the democratic  spirit  being given rein.  What made the England of the  time  unusual  was  the long-existing ideal of  individual  freedom  which had reached a high degree of sophistication,  including the  notion that free debate,  the sine qua no of  democracy,   was of value in itself. Here are two passages which give  a  taste  of  the  way minds were working in the  1640s.  First,   John Milton writing in the Areogapitica  in the 1640s:

And though  all  the  winds  of  doctrine were let loose upon the earth, so truth be  in the field [and]  we  do injuriously  by  licensing  and prohibiting  to  misdoubt  her strength. Let  her and falsehood  grapple; who  ever knew truth  put  to the worse, in a free and open encounter…

The  second  statement  comes  from  the Leveller Richard Overton’s ‘An  Arrow against all  Tyrants’  (19th  October, 1646).  It contains as  good a refutation of the  power  of authority  without consent over the individual  as  you  will find:

No man  hath  power over  my  rights and liberties, and I  over  no man’s….for by  naturall birth all men  are  equally  and alike  borne  to  like  propriety,  liberty  and  freedom,  and as  we are  delivered of  God by the  hand  of nature into this world, everyone  with  a  naturall, innate  freedom  and  propriety….even  so  are we to  live, every  one equally and alike  to enjoy his birthright  and privilege…. [no  more  of which  may  be alienated] than  is  conducive  to a better  being, more  safety and  freedome….[for]  every  man  by nature being a  King, Priest  and  Prophet in  his  own naturall circuit and compasse, whereof no second may  partake,  but  by deputation,  commission   and  free  consent from  him, whose naturall  right and freedome it is. [An Arrow against alltyrants].

These  were  not  odd voices crying in  the  wilderness.  The democratic spirit was widespread in the 1640s.  By this I  do not  mean  that men were  commonly calling for  full  manhood suffrage, much less the emancipation of women.  Even the most democratically  advanced  of  the  important groups which evolved during the Civil War, the Levellers,  were unclear as to  whether  those who were deemed dependent in the sense  of  not  being  their own masters – servants  and  almstakers –  should be given the vote or, indeed, who counted as a servant or almstaker.

Rather,  there  was a sense that the social order had  been rearranged  by the war,  that men were on some new ground  of equality  and had a right to a public voice.  In  particular, there  was a belief that those who had fought for  Parliament had  won  the right to enfranchisement. There  was  also  a  widespread feeling, which penetrated all social classes, that the  existing  franchises  (which  as  we  have  seen  varied greatly)  were  frequently  too narrow and  that  the  towns,  particularly  those most recently grown to substantial  size, were grossly under-represented.  

Ideas of social and political equality had,  as we have seen,  existed  long  before the Civil War, but never  before  had  large  swathes  of the masses  and the  elite  seen  anything approaching  representative democracy as  practical  politics  under any circumstances. The political and social elite  of  the period after 1640  may have been desperately afraid of  a  general representation of  the English people,  but they  did  not  say it was impossible,  merely feared its  consequences.  They may have loathed the idea of every man his own political  master but  they were forced by circumstances to admit that a  Parliament elected on a  broad franchise  was not a fantasy.

The  Putney  Debates in 1647 provide  a vivid record  of  the political fervour and mentality of the times. Parliamentary and Army leaders including Cromwell and his son-in-law  Henry Ireton, met with  a variety of people on what might broadly be  called  the democratic side.  A substantial part  of  the  debate was taken down in shorthand.  It is a most  intriguing  and exciting document,  despite its incompleteness and some confused  passages.  The sheer range of  political  ideas  it displays  is  impressive.  It shows clearly  that  the  1640s experienced  a  high  degree of  sophistication  amongst  the  politically  interested class and that this class  was  drawn  from  a  broad  swathe  of English  society.  The  ideas  run  discussed  from  the  monarchical  to the  unreservedly  democratic,  epitomised in Col Thomas  Rainsborough’s  famous words: 

…  I think that the poorest he that is in England  hath a life to lead,  as the richest he;  and therefore truly, sir,  I think it’s clear,  that every man that is to live under  a government  ought first  by his own consent to put  himself  under that government; and I do  not  think   that the poorest man in England  is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government  that he has not had  a  voice  to put himself under…  (Col Thomas  Rainsborough  Puritanism and Liberty The Putney debates p 53). 

Democracy, the revolutionary idea

Why was  the  idea  of  every  man  being  an  elector so revolutionary? There was of course  the age-old traditional  fear,  known to the Greeks,  that the masses would dispossess  haves if they had control of who was to hold power.  But  the  matter went  much deeper than that. The enfranchisement of  a   wide  electorate  is  perhaps  the most fundamental political  change a society can undergo. It  forces the elite  to take  note of the masses in a way that no other system does. Even  the  humblest  man  must be considered as a man  in  his  own right, a person with a vote and needs and wishes. Those needs and  wishes  may  be heeded  and  met  to  varying  degrees  according  to  the  success an elite has  in  subverting  the  representative  process through such tricks as  international  treaties  and the  development  of  disciplined political  parties,  but what the  majority needs and wants  cannot as a  matter  of course  be ignored completely when each man has  a  vote.

A  form  of male-only  democracy existed in  the  ancient world, but it was never inclusive  because  the citizens were only a part of the population of a Greek civis  and the large numbers  of  unfree men and free  men who were  not  citizens were excluded.  The Roman Republic  had enjoyed in  varying  degrees  at  various  times  democratic  expression through  plebeian  institutions  such  as  the  concilium  plebis  and  offices such as that  of tribune. But that was a class  based representation which arose to oppose the Patrician class, not  a  self-conscious representation of individual men.

Received wisdom it may be  now, the idea that every man  (but not  woman  then) should have an active voice  in  choosing  those  who  would  represent and govern them  was  to  most  people,  poor and rich,  a truly novel and disturbing concept  in the middle of the 17th  century.

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