It Took Two British Civil Wars to Plant the Seeds of American Liberty
In the previous installment of this series, I gave the historical and religious background of the English Civil War — which planted the seeds of every significant institution that would take root in American soil. As we noted before, there were many concrete issues at stake in the struggle between the Crown and Parliament.
Rural people, gentry, nobles, high-church Anglicans, and persecuted Catholics feared that the power of Parliament would benefit city-dwellers, merchants (including slave-traders), nouveau riche speculators, and radical Protestants. So they rallied behind the efforts of monarchs such as James I and his son Charles I to increase the king’s own power, independent of Parliament.
This led them to support a political theory which James I called “the Divine Right of Kings.” On this view, the king embodied the law itself, which was identical to his will. Obedience to God required obedience to His appointed ruler on earth, leaving no justification for resistance or revolt. As David Kopel notes in The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action, James’ theory was new to Englishmen. It was quickly denounced both by Calvinists and Catholics.
Ancient Absolutism, Revived
The theory had ancient precedent. The absolute power of Roman emperors, oriental monarchs, and other pre-Christian rulers was still the norm outside of Europe even in the 17th century. It was only the collapse of the Western Roman empire that allowed for much more decentralized political institutions to emerge. The rediscovery of Roman law during the Renaissance gave monarchs a powerful, prestigious weapon in their quest to consolidate power.
Feudal barons would zealously guard their independence throughout the Middle Ages, yielding concessions from kings like the Magna Carta. The Church would assert her rights, and protect her vast institutional wealth and land-holdings, wielding moral authority over the people.
But as we saw, the shattering of the Church in the Reformation ended its political independence, and made it everywhere subject to state control and interference. The military revolution of the late Renaissance, with rifles replacing bows, and cannons battering down castle walls, made warfare too expensive for anyone but powerful monarchs. Professional armies replaced feudal levies, and kings became less dependent on barons’ cooperativeness.
Turning Barons from Warlords into Courtiers
Throughout Continental Europe, except in the fractured Holy Roman Empire — which effectively ceased to function as a state — monarchs were able to shake off medieval checks and balances on their power. In France, the monarchy broke the backs of the nobility during a vicious civil war (the Frondes, 1648-1653). Dukes and counts went from quasi-autonomous military allies of the king, to courtiers who competed for the “privilege” of holding the king’s chamber pot. This would culminate with their quasi-imprisonment in the gilded cage of Versailles.
Similar centralization took root in Habsburg Spain, where the rights of local communities to vote and to levy taxes were revoked by Charles V. In Scandinavia and Russia, monarchs quashed noble resistance, centralized their own power, and imposed religious homogeneity through established, intolerant churches.
The English Resistance Movement
And that is what James I hoped to codify through his Divine Right of Kings. It’s what his parliamentary opponents, many of them religiously motivated, were determined to prevent. Kopel cites the intellectual landmarks of this resistance movement, noting that radical Protestants in England cited Jesuit Robert Bellarmine and other Catholic thinkers on the God-given limits of royal power. Kopel writes:
In 1644, the Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford published Lex, Rex: or the Law and the Prince. The point of the title was that the law precedes the king: the monarch must obey the law. In fact, the law is the ultimate king, above any human monarch. Lex, Rex refuted Charles I’s bold assertion, articulated by an absolutist judge, that rex est lex loquens — that is, the king is the law speaking.
The antecedent for rex est lex was the despotism of the late Roman Empire. The antecedent for Lex, Rex was the Old Testament. There, the very definition of the Hebrew nation is the people who live according to the law given by God. The Anglo-American ideal of the ‘rule of law” embodies Rutherford’s principle. … [S]overeignty was inherent in the people, and was granted only conditionally to king’s by the people.
Like previous resistance theorists, Rutherford extrapolated a right of resistance from the natural right of self-defense. … One way a well-ordered society preserved a proper balance of power was ensuring that government did not have all the weapons: ‘To denude the people of [arms] because they may abuse the prince, is to expose them to violence and oppression, unjustly: for one king may more easily abuse [arms] than all the people; one may more easily fail than a community.’
The British Republic
Arguments like Rutherford’s were widely published and proved persuasive. Repeated efforts by Charles I to establish the monarchy as independent of Parliament, able to tax and raise armies without its consent, eventually led to civil war. After a bloody, back-and-forth struggle of several years, Parliament prevailed. Charles I was tried for treason and executed.
The English republic that emerged from this savage conflict might have honored representative principles. But its new polity only represented certain sectors of society. Its rule rested on fragile compromises among various sects of Protestants, some much more radical than others.
The differing views eventually paralyzed Parliament, and power fell into the hands of the competent, capable Oliver Cromwell. He ruled for five years as a virtual military dictator, without consulting Parliament. Cromwell rode roughshod over Catholics, high-church Anglicans, and many other sectors of British society, who never recognized the legitimacy of his government. Some in the Anglican church began to speak of “Charles I, King and Martyr.”
A Failed Theocracy?
Theocratic temptations emerged during Cromwell’s regime, which banned theatrical shows and tried to suppress popular celebrations such as May Day and even Christmas as “papist” or pagan. Cromwell’s efforts to suppress mostly Catholic, pro-royalist Ireland were particularly brutal, and helped cement the bitterness against English rule that would eventually ensure Irish independence.
During Cromwell’s reign, a wide array of new, radical voices were heard. One of the most consequential was that of genius poet John Milton, a genuine Renaissance man and fervent Republican. He published a series of pamphlets in defense of his political ideas, the most influential of which was Areopagitica, which laid out the strongest case yet argued for an almost new idea: the freedom of the press, the publication of ideas from any citizen without prior approval from the government. Our own First Amendment owes its origin in large part to this document.
Upon Cromwell’s death in 1658, a groundswell of support arose for a return to normalcy, to the old English system of balance between a limited monarch and Parliament. The exiled Stuart heir to Charles I, his son Charles II, offered to restore that if given the throne. He returned in 1660, promising amnesty to those who’d overthrown and executed his father, and a balanced system of government. As we’ll see in the next installment, suspicious English soon came to fear that he wouldn’t be keeping such promises. It would take another, albeit briefer, civil war to make sure of that.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”