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.


Republics v Monarchies

The Scottish National Party recently brought the question of the Monarchy back onto the political agenda by voting at their 2017 party conference in favour of cutting public funding for the Royal Family. Delegates supported overwhelmingly a motion calling for the repeal of the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011. While the vote will not bring immediate political change, since Westminster retains control of the Sovereign Grant, the vote has drawn attention once again to the alleged republicanism at the heart of the SNP and the idea that an independent Scotland might choose to replace the Queen as head of state. Such suggestions always produce strong views on both sides, usually labelled 'republican' and 'monarchist'.

On the surface, at least, the distinction between republics and monarchies is a crucial feature of our modern political landscape. Yet the history of these two constitutional forms is far more complex than this simple dichotomy would suggest. Indeed, according to one historical definition, Britain is and has long been a republic, whereas on the basis of another neither France nor the United States of America is worthy of that term. Monarchists and republicans alike might, therefore, benefit from a deeper understanding of the history of these political concepts.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

The concept of republican government, in both theory and practice, dates back at least to ancient Rome. It was explored in a number of Roman texts, not least those of Marcus Tullius Cicero who was both a politician and a political thinker. In his De re publica Cicero did not define a republic or commonwealth in opposition to kingship, but instead argued 'that a commonwealth (that is the concern of the people) then truly exists when its affairs are conducted well and justly, whether by a single king, or by a few aristocrats, or by the people as a whole'. (Cicero, On the Commonwealth, ed. James. E. G. Zetzel Cambridge, 1999,  p. 59). The key distinction here, then, is between rule that serves the public interest and that which serves private interests. So, on Cicero's account, a monarchy, if properly organised and directed towards the public good, could be a kind of republic. That same idea was still being voiced as late as the mid-eighteenth century, when the Genevan-born political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract:

I therefore call Republic any State ruled by laws, whatever be the form of administration: for then the public interest alone governs, and the public thing counts for something. Every legitimate government is republican.

The accompanying footnote might appear self-contradictory, if Cicero's position is not borne in mind:

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

By this word I understand not only an Aristocracy or a Democracy, but in general any government guided by the general will, which is the law. To be legitimate, the Government must be not confused with the Sovereign, but be its minister. Then monarchy itself is a republic. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, ed. Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge, 1997, p. 67)

   But while the Ciceronian understanding of a republic survived well into the eighteenth century, from the late fifteenth century onwards a second understanding was developing. This saw monarchy not as one form of republican government, but as its direct opposite. Several historians have recently traced the development of this tradition of republican thought, emphasising its debt to the writings of Italian Renaissance thinkers as well as to a tradition of Jewish Biblical scholarship that offered a distinctive take on the Israelites' plea to God in I Samuel 8 that they be given a king like other nations.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were certainly those who saw republican government as requiring the destruction of monarchy. The English Civil War of the 1640s prompted some parliamentarians to attack not simply Charles I, or even just tyrants, but all kings. Marchamont Nedham was one of several figures who challenged the very distinction between kings and tyrants: 'Had they [the English] but once tasted the sweets of peace and liberty both together, they would soon be of the opinion of Herodotus and Demosthenes that there is no difference between king and tyrant and become as zealous as the ancient Romans were in defence of their freedom.' (Marchamont Nedham, The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated, ed. Philip A. Knachel, Charlottesville, 1969, pp. 127-8). This view had practical import too. The 'Act Abolishing the Office of King', which was passed on 17 March 1649, declared the office of king to be 'unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people' and the ensuing 'Act Declaring England to be a Commonwealth and Free State', which was passed in May 1649, insisted that this government was to be 'without any King or House of Lords'.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Yet even this does not present the full complexity of the concept, since those who agreed that republicanism was, by definition, anti-monarchical, could nevertheless disagree over precisely what institutional form should replace the office of king. Most significant was the distinction between those who insisted merely on the absence of a monarch, and those who outlawed any form of single-person rule. Thus a third definition of republic required that the government was not headed by a single figure, but by a group or council. As John Milton asserted in The Readie and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth: 'I doubt not but all ingenuous and knowing men will easily agree with me, that a free Commonwealth without single person or house of lords, is by far the best government, if it can be had.' (John Milton, The Readie and Easy Way, in Selected Prose, ed. C. A. Parties, Harmondsworth, p. 338). Milton's formulation ruled out both monarchy (as in the reign of Charles I) and a Protectorate (as under Oliver Cromwell).

Moreover, the English revolutionaries had attempted to institute such a form a decade earlier. When Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649 he was replaced not by another single person, but rather by the Rump Parliament, which ruled together with its Council of State, until April 1653. Yet as its short life - and the rise of Oliver Cromwell - would suggest, experiments involving a purely conciliar government have often proved unsuccessful in practice. The experiments in France in the 1790s with the Committee of Public Safety, and later the Directory, further confirmed this conclusion.

Evidently, it is the second definition of a republic outlined above that is most common today, so that a republican wishes to abolish the Monarchy. According to the first definition, that of Cicero, modern Britain could, despite having a Queen as head of state, be counted as a republic so long as government decisions were made in the public interest. Indeed, there were those in the eighteenth century who made precisely that argument. In 1700, the controversial political thinker and activist John Toland declared that 'if a Commonwealth be a Government of Laws enacted for the Common good of all the People' and if they had some means to consent to those laws 'Then it is undeniably manifest that the English Government is already a Commonwealth, the most free and best constituted in all the world.' (John Toland, The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, London, 1737, p. vii-viii). According to the third definition, by contrast, which requires that a single person must not be given considerable power, neither France nor the United States of America (both of which have a President), would be deemed worthy of that label.

Viewed historically, 'monarchy', is no easier to define than 'republic'. We can see this if we consider precisely what features make a monarch. Hereditary rule might be thought of as one key element, but this does not hold in the case of the early-modern Polish monarchy, which was elective. We might, then, say that a monarch generally holds his or her position for life. This would work for the Polish system, but it was also true of the Doge of Venice during the same period, and yet most people would argue that the Doge was the head of a republic rather than being a monarch.  Instead of thinking about the nature of the position, then, we might consider the extent of the power wielded. But this seems no more satisfactory as a basis for distinguishing monarchies from republics, since from the late eighteenth century to the present the President of the United States of America has tended to wield far greater powers than the English monarch. While part of the problem here is that the modern British Monarchy is in some ways a misnomer, since our Queen is a hereditary figurehead rather than a power-wielding head of government, even in the late eighteenth century George Washington already enjoyed greater powers in certain respects than George III. (For an interesting exploration of the royal tendencies in the American system see Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2014).

John Lilburne,  England's New Chains Discovered,  London, 1649. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

John Lilburne, England's New Chains Discovered, London, 1649. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

This is not to say that important differences between what are conventionally labelled as monarchies and republics do not exist. The expenditure of public money on the Royal Family and the upkeep of royal palaces has always been one of the stronger arguments in the British republican arsenal (though of course presidential systems and legislative assemblies also incur costs). But we must also be careful not to assume that all our political problems can be solved by establishing a republic. It did not take long even for those seventeenth-century English revolutionaries who had called for an end to the monarchy to realise that many problems remained in its wake. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the fact that, less than a month after the regicide, the Leveller leader John Lilburne published a pamphlet which he entitled England's New Chains Discovered.