Peaceful Revolution?

Several recent commentators on world affairs, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, have suggested that what is required to solve current problems is nothing short of a revolution. Despite my sympathy with the need for drastic change, as an historian of the English and French Revolutions I always feel cautious about calls for revolution. Both of the revolutions I have researched provide ample evidence of the horrors that it can bring: the havoc and destruction it wreaks on the country and the devastation it causes to individual lives.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The Civil War, which was a key component of the English Revolution, is thought to have resulted, as noted in a previous blogpost, in the deaths of a larger proportion of the adult male population of this country than the First World War. The regicide - effectively a state-sponsored execution - that lay at the Revolution's heart, introduced a period of ten years of unstable government which had serious political and economic consequences. Moreover, the whole period brought division and animosity. Families were divided, with brothers or fathers and sons fighting on different sides. Royalists were excluded from the franchise in both of the constitutions of the 1650s: the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice, as well as having their land and assets seized. After 1660 the tables were turned and it was former revolutionaries, especially the regicides, who were punished. Even his early death in 1658 did not protect Oliver Cromwell: his body was dug up in order to be posthumously decapitated. Moreover, the social divisions survived well beyond 1660, with the labels 'Roundhead' and 'Cavalier' mutating into those of 'Whig' and 'Tory', which dominated British politics throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. 

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

The French Revolution has an even greater reputation for violence. This was frequently perpetrated by the crowds. For example, around the time of the storming of the Bastille, the decapitated heads of authority figures were hung from lampposts, and in October 1789 a crowd of women armed with pikes marched to Versailles and forced the royal family back to Paris. Later, in the September Massacres of 1792, over a thousand prisoners were slaughtered to prevent them from joining with foreign troops who were imminently expected to invade Paris (but actually never came). Violence was also perpetrated by the government itself, via the use of the guillotine and by the declaration, in September 1793, that Terror was the 'order of the day'.

Of course, not all English or French revolutionaries insisted that violence and division were essential to achieving their aims. In each case there were prominent individuals who argued strongly against both. James Harrington was one of these. Though he supported the parliamentary cause financially during the 1640s, and argued that England was ripe for popular government in his major work The Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, he acted as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I in 1647-8, having previously worked on behalf of Charles's nephew, the Prince Elector Palatine. In keeping with these connections, Harrington was intent, in the aftermath of the Civil War, on healing and settling a divided nation. To this end he even argued that royalists should be allowed to vote:

Extract from James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana,  in  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq.,  ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

Extract from James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq., ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

During the French Revolution calls for clemency were made by members of the Cordeliers Club who, as was demonstrated in my previous blogpost, showed an interest both in Harrington's works and in his understanding of democracy. In particular, Camille Desmoulins in his newspaper Le Vieux Cordelier, condemned Maximilian Robespierre's appeal to revolutionary necessity, which was used to justify the Terror. Against Robespierre's position, Desmoulins asserted the traditional Cordeliers call for the protection and defence of the rights of individuals, insisting that the Cordeliers' fight had been to defend: 'the declaration of rights, the gentleness of republican maxims, fraternity, holy equality, the inviolability of principles'. (Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, Paris: Belin, 1987, p.80). Freedom of speech and the liberty of the press were particularly important to him as means of protecting the people against tyranny, and as the fundamental foundation of republican government: 'What is the last retrenchment against despotism? It is the liberty of the press ... What is it that distinguishes a republic from a Monarchy? It is a single thing, the liberty of speaking and of writing.' (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 147). Moreover, Desmoulins turned this idea directly against Robespierre's notion - borrowed from Montesquieu - of a republic of virtue:

But to return to the question of the liberty of the press, without doubt it must be unlimited; without doubt republics must have as their base and foundation the liberty of the press, not this other base that Montesquieu has given them. (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 179).

Camille Desmoulins,  Le Vieux Cordelier , no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Neither Harrington nor Desmoulins proved very successful in their attempts to bring about a more harmonious settlement. Despite his best efforts, Harrington's proposals were not taken up by the government. After the Restoration he was arrested and imprisoned by the authorities, and he did not publish any further works during his lifetime. Desmoulins suffered even more drastically for his views. He was sent to the guillotine in April 1794 by the man whose ideas he had criticised in Le Vieux Cordelier, his former schoolfriend, Robespierre.

Yet, just because they failed, does not mean that the ideas of Harrington and Desmoulins were not feasible, or that they do not have something useful to teach us. Most historians no longer subscribe to a narrow Whig interpretation of the past, but rather acknowledge that the ideas that did not win out, and even the paths not taken, are worthy of some consideration. Finding political solutions that can unite those of very different political persuasions (as Harrington sought to do) is an appealing idea at a time when politics is more divisive and combative than ever. And the notion that freedom of speech and a free press should form the foundation of the political system is widely respected, if not always enacted, today. Moreover, these two ideas are combined in an interesting initiative that has been gaining some traction. Advocates and practitioners of local participatory democracy have shown that allowing groups of interested parties openly to discuss and debate issues often leads to greater consensus. Applying this kind of local participatory democracy more widely could perhaps offer a solution to the current democratic crisis.

No doubt part of the appeal of Harrington's ideas to Desmoulins and his fellow Cordeliers was his attempt to combine a commitment to innovative and revolutionary ideas - not least democratic government - with a concern to heal divisions and to build a society that was open to a range of viewpoints as well as being harmonious. And I am aware that my own interest in both Harrington and Desmoulins stems partly from the same desire. For me, these thinkers offer the possibility that we may be able to bring about positive and lasting change to our society, including its political institutions, without recourse to revolutionary violence or even to the silencing of 'inconvenient' views.










House of Lords Reform Seventeenth-Century Style

House of Lords and House of Commons during King Charles I's reign, c. 1640-42, artist unknown. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D18316. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

House of Lords and House of Commons during King Charles I's reign, c. 1640-42, artist unknown. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D18316. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

In late October, several newspapers reported new proposals for reform of the House of Lords. It was suggested that its membership be cut to 600; that peers be limited to fifteen-year terms; and that future appointments be made not by the government but by all political parties, according to their average share of the vote at the previous election. These proposals are the outcome of ten months of investigation by a committee headed by Lord Terence Burns. For those unhappy with the patently unrepresentative nature of the upper house, the proposals of this committee are likely to be a disappointment. The fact that the reduction to 600 members will not be realised until 2027, and that more drastic change (such as abandoning the hereditary element altogether) is not being proposed, makes the committee look timid. As so often in the face of frustration at contemporary political issues, I am led to reflect on what might be learnt from paying more attention to the debates of the seventeenth century.

The purpose, function and constitution of the second chamber was a major issue during the period of the English Revolution. In the space of less than two decades (from 1640 to 1659) a variety of models were not only proposed and debated, but even enacted. Early seventeenth-century accounts presented the House of Lords as a key component of England's mixed constitution. It provided an institutional setting for the aristocratic element, alongside the King (who embodied the monarchical element), and the Commons (which represented the democratic). However, the composition of the upper house (and therefore what was meant by the term 'aristocracy'), and even its very existence, came up for debate during the Revolution.

Statue of Charles I, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Charles I, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The House of Lords had already become a source of some concern even before the outbreak of civil war in 1642, due to the inclusion of bishops among its voting members. Many Puritans opposed episcopacy (the rule of bishops within the church) and they were especially concerned about their ability to wield political power. The Bishops' Exclusion Bill, which was passed on 13 February 1642, removed them from the House of Lords, thereby reducing the political power of the established church. Bishops only returned to the Lords as a result of the Clergy Act of 1661.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

By 1649 the House of Lords as an institution was under attack. The Lords was seen as the natural supporter of monarchy and so it was feared that its members would favour a settlement with the defeated king on his terms. Consequently, after the purging of the Commons to remove those MPs thought to be sympathetic to a settlement, the remaining MPs declared the Commons to be supreme, insisting that it would, henceforth, rule without the House of Lords. The purged Commons then initiated the King's trial, which ended in regicide. It also held onto power in the aftermath of that seismic event. Between January 1649 and April 1653 England was ruled by a unicameral system in which power was concentrated in the 'Rump' of the old Parliament (those MPs who remained after the purge), without any second chamber or single figurehead.

The rule of the Rump Parliament was short-lived. It was dissolved by Oliver Cromwell in April 1653, but this did not prompt the return of a second chamber. The Rump was replaced by the short-lived Nominated Assembly or Barebones Parliament, which was also a unicameral body. It was in turn replaced, in December 1653, by the Protectorate, governed according to the Instrument of Government (the first written constitution in English history), which declared that a single chamber parliament would rule alongside the Protector and his Council of State. It was during the early phase of the Protectorate that the absence of a second chamber to rein in or check the power of the Commons started to be seen as a weakness. Consequently, when a revised constitution, the Humble Petition and Advice, was drawn up in 1657 one of the main changes imposed was that the parliament was to be bicameral. The new second chamber was not, however, to be a House of Lords on the old model. Known simply as the 'Other House' it was a small body consisting of between 40 and 70 life members who were nominated by Cromwell as Lord Protector, subject to approval by the Commons.            

'The Use and Manner of the Ballot' shows Harrington's 'senate' in the process of voting.  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

'The Use and Manner of the Ballot' shows Harrington's 'senate' in the process of voting. The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

Writing in the midst of this debate and experimentation surrounding the upper chamber, it is perhaps not surprising that James Harrington voiced strong views on this element of the constitution. In The Commonwealth of Oceana, which was published in 1656 when the weaknesses of the Instrument of Government were most acute, Harrington explicitly insisted on the need for a bicameral system to balance and control the power of the lower house, and he set out very clearly both the composition of the second chamber and the role that it was to play. Harrington argued that the second chamber, or senate as he called it, should be composed of a natural aristocracy. This has led some commentators to view him as a supporter of privilege, but his conception was far removed from a traditional aristocracy. Indeed, the membership of his senate was more democratic not just than other second chamber models of the time, but also than our current House of Lords. In the first place, though he used the term 'aristocracy', birth was to play no part in the choice of senators, since there were to be no hereditary peers. Instead, members of the senate were to be chosen on the basis of wealth and merit. While the criterion of wealth might appear exclusive, the basis on which Harrington justified and applied it was remarkably inclusive. The wealth criterion was justified partly on the grounds that money was necessary in order to engage in the study and travel required for the acquisition of political wisdom. Moreover, the threshold was set extremely low by the standards of the time. Senators were simply required to have an annual income of £100 in land, goods or money. Given that, under the Instrument of Government, the property qualification just for voting in parliamentary elections was set at £200 per annum, Harrington's provision is very generous. In addition, by instituting an agrarian law that was designed to ensure a wide distribution of landed property, and by not relying on property in land alone, Harrington's plan would open the door to social mobility. Nor was wealth to be the only criterion, since to become a member of the senate one also had to be chosen by the people who were to judge potential candidates on the basis of merit alone. Finally, Harrington sought to prevent the senate from becoming an entrenched élite by firmly rejecting the idea that senators should sit for life and instead making them subject to rotation of office, so that each senator would serve for a period of just three years, and at the end of each term would have to spend an equivalent term out of office before becoming eligible for re-election.

It is testimony to Harrington's radicalism that these proposals go far beyond those of the Burns committee today. Imposing an agrarian law might be a step too far, but electing the members of the upper house according to merit and subjecting them to rotation of office would go some way towards removing the appearance of an entrenched political elite.