From Cromwell to Wilkes

British History between the years of 1642 and 1776 amounted to a gradual refinement of representative democracy. A conflict between absolute monarchy and parliamentary supremacy evolved into a debate about the precise nature of that parliamentary supremacy. Whereas the first conflict was confined to the seventeenth century, the second emerged gradually throughout the eighteenth. Rebellion against Stuart kingship unleashed the forces of a social revolution that had been developing throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, one that crippled irrevocably the doctrine of a monarch’s divine right to rule. Though Britain’s inability to bridle the subsequent chaos briefly drove the country back into the sentimental arms of Stuart absolutism, the Glorious Revolution codified in a more conservative fashion the parliamentary prerogatives for which the Roundheads had fought. Whig innovations and the crisis of the Hanoverian Succession would perpetuate partisan division and strife over the form that Parliament’s nascent supremacy would assume. Robert Walpole’s Whig Ascendancy brought stability to a British nation that had seethed with rebellion and war for almost a century. Yet the authoritarian turn that the British Empire would take under Whiggish tutelage alienated many parliamentarians and drove the American colonies to strike off on their own experiment in republicanism. The representative supremacy for which Cromwell had fought was thus supplanted by a sovereignty that transcended Parliament, one that found its origin in “the people.”

The period leading up to and immediately following the Civil War witnessed the development and expression of a democratic impulse in England, the upshot of which was the negation of early Stuart attempts to foist an absolute monarchy upon the English people. Prior to the 1400s, English manorial society had conformed to the prosaic, premodern division between aristocrats who fought, priests and scribes who prayed, and peasants who produced for their own consumption. The labor shortage that followed in the wake of the Black Death (1348-1349) imbued peasants with greater bargaining power over their terms of service. The most enterprising amongst them began to rent land from their former masters, acting as tenant farmers for the land-owning gentry and aristocracy. The proto-capitalistic dynamism attendant upon this reshuffling of the social deck weakened somewhat the traditional hierarchy that had existed under feudal society. The Civil War itself unleashed much of this latent democratic energy, bringing it to bear upon Stuart haughtiness. Cromwell, recognizing Charles I’s monopolization of the legitimate means of violence, turned to artisans and former serfs in the constitution of his New Model Army. Now the masses were compelled to develop a much more immediate sense of political awareness. The Levelers’ Agreement of the free people of England encapsulated the furor that accompanied the acknowledgment, if not the enfranchisement, of a much broader segment of society. The manifesto, composed by John Lilburne during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, called among other radical measures for universal manhood suffrage. Yet this was a bridge too far. It soon became clear that such radicalism diverged from the parliamentarians’ understanding of the Civil War’s objectives. After Charles I’s disregard for parliamentary approval of his military commanders and for its role in levying taxes found redress in the king’s decapitation, a reactionary impulse set in. Cromwell, having first tried to rule via the friendly auspices of a Rump Parliament, dispensed with the institution entirely, establishing a military dictatorship that would last until his death in 1658.

The Glorious Revolution would mold these impulses into a more stable foundation for English liberty, with parliamentary supremacy occupying its core. The conflicts that raged between 1660 and 1694 confined themselves overwhelmingly to the political axis between Crown and Parliament. Though the English nation did regress to Stuart absolutism after 1660, this reaction owed itself more to a sentimental yearning for stability than to a disavowal of representative government. The Stuarts proved perennially incapable of understanding the principles upon which their throne rested. Steven Pincus paints a vivid portrait of the debate, discussion, and literature that predominated in the coffeehouse culture of Restoration England in his article “Coffee Politicians Does Create.” For all Robert L’Estrange’s propagandistic efforts, Charles II’s attempt to obliviate England’s collective memory of Cromwell’s resistance to royal authority would not come to fruition. Though he professed his fealty to the Anglican Church, Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence was widely construed as an attempt to sanction the presence of his beloved Catholics as well as Protestant Dissenters. The Test Act of 1673, which mandated that officeholders assume membership in the Church of England, represents one of the few occasions on which the Restoration Parliament expressed anything but deference for the Crown. Though Titus Oates’ baseless claims of a Popish Plot had little basis in fact, the clandestine Treaty of Dover stipulated that the English king would eventually concede his allegiance to the Roman Church.

These follies would pale in comparison to those perpetrated by James II. No king ever acceded upon a tide of greater popular support. The Rye House Plot of 1683 and the near simultaneous rebellions of the Dukes of Monmouth and Argyll quenched what little opposition remained to the continuity of the Stuart line. The Whig leadership, including the Earl of Shaftesbury and his secretary John Locke, had fled to Holland. A mediocre king would have enjoyed a perpetual reign under such circumstances. Yet the English nation was subjected to something much worse than mediocrity. It drank the draught of ambition. James II took as his ultimate goal the establishment of a Gallican Catholicism along the lines of Louis XIV’s France. Steven Pincus illustrates the contours of this project in “The Practice of Catholic Modernity.” Not only did he establish a prodigious standing army, in the process threatening to revoke the charters of inns and public houses that refused to accommodate it. He also employed the naval secretary and renowned diarist Samuel Pepys in the modernization of his fleet along the lines of his French counterpart. He installed his Catholic coreligionists as college chancellors at both Oxford and Cambridge, permitting the open practice of Mass at the quintessentially English seats of learning.

The parliamentary reaction to such monarchical overreaching reasserted in more lasting form the spirit of Cromwell and his Roundheads. Philosophical justification for the actions undertaken by Parliament between 1688 and 1689 was provided by John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which held that any government which fails to perform the function for which it has been constituted, viz. the protection of property, lapses into illegitimacy. The Bill of Rights, having asserted the ancient prerogatives of the English people, arrogated to Parliament the sole right to levy taxes and standing armies. The Whigs’ establishment of a Bank of England in 1694 would lend substance to this declaration by assuring parliamentary supremacy would hold true in deed as well as word. As the prosperity of the kingdom depended in large part upon Parliament’s earmarking future revenues in order to pay down the interest on the national debt, the monarch found his policies, as well as the maintenance of his royal household, contingent upon ministers who could sustain parliamentary majorities.

The manner in which the War of the Spanish Succession perpetuated partisan conflict and lifted new social elements to prominence has been well documented.[1] After the turn of the eighteenth century, the battle lines would no longer encompass the ground between Crown and Parliament, but rather between Whig and Tory.

Ideological fragmentation and conflict within Parliament would only proliferate throughout the rest of the eighteenth century. Though Robert Walpole and the Whig Ascendancy ushered in a period of unprecedented political stability, the system that they established would assume authoritarian tendencies by the mid-eighteenth century, encouraging Britain’s American colonies to establish a nation that explicitly embraced the doctrines of John Locke in its Declaration of Independence. The cry of “taxation without representation” was as English as political incorrectness. Walpole sought to pacify the Tory gentlemen residing outside the Whig Establishment by shifting the burden of taxation from the landed classes to urban manufactures. Restrictions upon parliamentary suffrage ensured that Walpole could command a majority in the Commons without accounting for the opinions of commercial society. Though Monod showcases the popular discontent attendant upon the Excise Crisis of the 1730s and the brief coalescence of a Patriot Opposition around Frederick, Duke of Wales, the Establishment Whigs’ monopoly on power would end only with the incorporation of William Pitt into George II’s cabinet.

Yet Patriotism and new Toryism only compounded the authoritarian tendencies of the British government. Robert Clive’s letter to the Elder Pitt, urging him to use his clout within the British government to facilitate the Royal East India Company’s virtual annexation of Bengal, demonstrates that Parliament no longer confined the assertion of its will to the British Isles. Pitt having run up the national debt to a staggering 130 million pounds in order to defeat France in the Seven Years War, subsequent ministries would turn to the American colonies as a source of revenue, bypassing both the colonial assemblies and the policy of salutary neglect that had predominated under Walpole’s administration. But the perennial flame of English liberty had not yet exhausted itself. John Wilkes, having criticized George III’s eulogy on the Treaty of Paris in his infamous North Briton No. 45, won a resounding victory for freedom of the press when the courts decided to vindicate his objection to the general warrant that justified his imprisonment. Parliamentary ministers now had to contend with a popular force external to the corridors of power. Wilkes’ example would animate the American patriots in their own struggle with an overbearing Parliament.


[1] cf. Ciarán Dean-Jones. “Toryism’s Trials.” The printer in his parents’ study. 2013. passim

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