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.