The History of England from the
Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Revolution of 1688

David Hume

Chapter 61

The Commonwealth

Cromwell's Birth and Private Life.---Barebone's Parliament.---Cromwell made Protector.---Peace with Holland.---A New Parliament.---Insurrection of the Royalists.---State of Europe.---War with Spain.---Jamaica Conquered.---Success and Death of Admiral Blake.---Domestic Administration of Cromwell.---Humble Petition and Advice.---Dunkirk Taken.---Sickness of the Protector.---His Death and Character.

[1653] Oliver Cromwell, in whose hands the dissolution of the Parliament had left the whole power, civil and military, of three kingdoms, was born at Huntingdon, the last year of the former century, of a goodly family, though he himself, being the son of a second brother, inherited but a small estate from his father. In the course of his education he had been sent to the university, but his genius was found little fitted for the calm and elegant occupations of learning, and he made small proficiencies in his studies, He even threw himself into a dissolute and disorderly course of life; and he consumed in gaming, drinking, debauchery, and country riots the more early years of his youth, and dissipated part of his patrimony. All of a sudden the spirit of reformation seized him; be married, affected a grave and composed behavior, entered into all the zeal and rigor of the Puritanical party, and offered to restore to every one whatever sums he had formerly gained by gaming. The same vehemence of temper which had transported him into the extremes of pleasure now distinguished his religious habits. His house was the resort of all the zealous clergy of the party; and his hospitality, as well as his liberalities to the silenced and deprived ministers, proved as chargeable as his former debaucheries. Tbough he had acquired a tolerable fortune by a maternal uncle, he found his affairs so injured by his expenses that he was obliged to take a farm at St. Ives and apply himself for some years to agriculture as a profession. But this expedient served rather to further debts and difficulties. The long prayers which he said to his family in the morning and again in the afternoon consumed his own time and that of his ploughmen, and he reserved no leisure for the care of his temporal affairs. His active mind, superior to the low occupation which he was condemned, preyed upon itself; and he indulged his imagination in visions, illuminations, revelations, the great nourishment of that hypochondriacal temper to which he was ever subject. Urged by his wants and his piety, he had made a party with Hambden, his near kinsman, who was pressed only by the latter motive, to transport himself into New England, now become the retreat of the more zealous among the Puritanical party; and it was an order of council which obliged them to disembark and remain in England. The Earl of Bedford, to who possessed a large estate in the Fen country, near the Isle of Ely, having undertaken to drain these morasses, was obliged to apply to the king; and, by the powers of the prerogative, he got commisioners appointed who conducted that work and divided the new-acquired land among several proprietors. He met with opposition from many, among whom Cromwell distinguished himself; and this was the first public opportunity which he had met with of discovering the factious zeal and obstinacy of his character.

From accident and intrigue he was chosen by the town of Cambridge member of the Long Parliament. His domestic affairs were then in great disorder; and he seemed not to possess any talents which could qualify him to rise in that public sphere into which he was now at last entered. His person was ungraceful, his dress slovenly, his voice untunable, his elocution homely, tedious, obscure, and embarrassed. The fervor of his spirit frequently prompted him to rise in the House, but he was not heard with attention. His name, for above two years, is not to be found oftener than twice in any committee; and those committees into which he was admitted were chosen for affairs which would more interest the zealots than the men of business. In comparison of the eloquent speakers and fine gentlemen of the House, he was entirely overlooked; and his friend Hambden alone was acquainted with the depth of his genius, and foretold that if a civil war should ensue, he would rise to eminence and distinction.

Cromwell himself seems to have been conscious where his strength lay; and, partly front that motive, partly from the uncontrollable fury of his zeal, he always joined that party which pushed everything to extremities against the king. He was active in promoting the famous remonstrance which was the signal for all the ensuing commotions; and when, after a long debate, it was carried by a small majority, he told Lord Falkland that if the question had been lost, he was resolved next day to have converted into ready money the remains of his fortune, and immediately to have left the kingdom. Nor was this resolution, he said, peculiar to himself; many others of his party he knew to be equally determined,

He was no less than forty-three years of age when he first embraced the military profession; and by force of genius, without any master, be soon became an excellent officer, though perhaps he never reached the fame of a consummate commander. He raised a troop of borse, fixed his quarters in Cambridge, exerted great severity towards that university, which zealously adhered to the royal party, and showed himself a man who would go all lengths in favor of that cause which he had espoused. He would not allow his soldiers to perplex their heads with those subtleties of fighting by the king's anthority against his person, and of obeying his majesty's commands signified by both Houses of Parliament: he plainly told them that if he met the king in battle, he would fire a pistol in his face as readily as against any other man. His troop of horse he soon augmented to a regiment; and he first instituted that discipline and inspired that spirit which rendered the Parliamentarly army in the end victorious. ``Your troops'', said he to Hambden, according to his own account, ``are most of them old decayed serving-men and tapsters, and such kind of fellows; the king's forces are composed of gentlemen's younger sons and persons of good quality. And do you think that the mean spirits of such base and low fellows as ours will ever be able to encounter gentlemen that have honor and courage and resolution in tbem? You must get men of spirit, and take it not ill that I say, of a spirit that is likely to go as far as gentlemen will go, or else I am sure you will still be beaten, as you have hitherto been, in every encounter.'' He did as he proposed. He enlisted the sons of freeholders and farmers. He carefully invited into his regiment all the zealous fanatics throughout England. When they were collected in a body, their enthusiastic spirit still rose to a higher pitch. Their colonel, from his own natural character as well as from policy, was sufficiently inclined to increase the flame. He preached, he prayed, he fought, he punished, he rewarded. The wild enthusiasm, together with valor and discipline, still propagated itself; and all men cast their eyes on so pious and so successful a leader. From low commands he rose with great rapidity to be really the first, though in appearance only the second, in the army. By fraud and violence. he soon rendered himself the first in the state. In proportion to the increase of his authority his talents always seemed to expand themselves; and he displayed every day new abilities which had lain dormant till the very emergence by which they were called forth into action. All Europe stood astonished to see a nation so turbulent and unruly, who, for some doubtful encroachments on their privileges, had dethroned and murdered an excellent prince, descended from a long line of monarchs, now at last subdued and reduced to slavery by one who, a few years before, was no better than a private gentleman, whose name was not known in the nation, aud who was little regarded even in that low sphere to which he had always been confined.

The indignation entertained by the people against an anthority founded on such manifest usurpation was not so violent as might naturally be expected. Congratulatory addresses, the first of the kind, were made to Cromwell by the fleet, by the army, even by many of the chief corporations and counties of England, but especially by the several congregations of saints dispersed throughout the kingdom. The royalists, though they could not love the man who had imbrued his hands in the blood of their sovereign expected more lenity from him than from the jealous and imperious republicans who had hitherto governed. The Presbyterians were pleased to see those men by whom they had been outwitted and expelled now, in their turn, expelled and outwitted by their own servant; and they applauded him for this last act of violence upon the Parliament. These two parties composed the bulk of the nation, and kept the people in some tolerable temper. All men, likewise, harassed with wars and factions, were glad to see any prospect of settlement; and they deemed it less ignominious to submit to a person of such admirable talents and capacity than to a few ignoble, enthusiastic hypocrites who, under the name of a republic, had reduced them to a cruel subjection.

The republicans, being dethroned by Cromwell, were the party whose resentment be had the greatest reason to apprehend. That party, besides the Independents, contained two sets of men who are seemingly of the most opposite principles, but who were then united by a similitude of genius and of character. The first and most numerous were the Millenarians, or Fifth-monarchy men, who insisted that, dominion being founded in grace, all distinction in magistracy must be abolished, except what arose from piety and holiness; who expected suddenly the second coming of Christ upon earth; and who pretended that the saints in the meanwbile---that is, themselves---were alone entitled to govern. The second were the Deists, who had no other object than political liberty, who denied entirely the truth of revelation, and insinuated that all the various sects, so heated against each other, were alike founded in folly and in error. Men of such daring geniuses were not contented with the ancient and legal forms of civil government, but challenged a degree of freedom beyond what they expected ever to enjoy under any monarchy. Martin, Challoner, Harrington, Sidney, Wildman, Nevil, were esteemed the heads of this small division.

The Deists were perfectly hated by Cromwell, because be had no hold of enthusiasm by which he could govern or over-reach them; he therefore treated them with great rigor and disdain, and usually denominated them the heathens. As the Millenarians had a great interest in the army, it was much more important for him to gain their confidence; and their size of understanding afforded him great facility in deceiving them. Of late years it had been so usual a topic of conversation to discourse of parliaments and councils and senates, and the soldiers themselves had been so much accustomed to enter into that spirit, that Cromwell thought it requisite to establish something which might bear the face of a commonwealth. He supposed that God, in his providence, had thrown the whole right as well as power of government into his hands; and without any more ceremony, by the advice of his council of officers, he sent summons to a hundred and twenty-eight persons of different towns and counties of England, to five of Scotland, to six of Ireland. He pretended by his sole act and deed to devolve upon these the whole authority of the state. This legislative power they were to exercise during fifteen months, and they were afterwards to choose the same number of persons who might succeed them in that high and important office.

There were great numbers at that time who made it a principle always to adhere to any power which was uppermost and to support the established government. This maxim is not peculiar to the people of that age; but what may be esteemed peculiar to them is that there prevailed a hypocritical phrase for expressing so prudential a conduct---it was called a waiting upon Providence. When Providence, therefore, was so kind as to bestow on these men, now assembled together, the supreme authority, they must have been very ungrateful if, in their turn, they had been wanting in complaisance towards her. [July 4] They immediately voted themselves a Parliament; and, having their own consent as well as that of Oliver Cromwell for their legislative authority, they now proceeded very, gravely to the exercise of it.

In this notable assembly were some persons of the rank of gentlemen; but the far greater part were low mechanics, Fifth-monarchy men, Anabaptists, Antinomians, Independents---the very dregs of the fanatics. They began with seeking God by prayer. This office was performed by eight or ten gifted men of the assembly; and with so much success that, according to the confession of all, they had never before, in any of their devotional exercises, enjoyed so much of the Holy Spirit as was then communicated to them. [Ref] Their hearts were no doubt dilated when they considered the high dignity to which they supposed themselves exalted. They had been told by Cromwell, in his first discourse, that he never looked to see such a day when Christ should be so owned. They thought it, therefore, their duty to proceed to a thorough reformation, and to pave the way for the reign of the Redeemer, and for that great work which it was expected the Lord was to bring forth among them. All fanatics, being consecrated by their own fond imaginations, naturally bear an antipathy to the ecclesiastics who claim a peculiar sanctity derived merely from their office and priestly character. This Parliament took into consideration the abolition of the clerical function, as savoring of popery, and the taking-away of tithes, which they called a relic of Judaism. Learning, also, and the universities were deemed heathenish and unnecessary; the common law was denominated a badge of the Conquest and of Norman slavery; and they threatened the lawyers with a total abrogation of their profession. Some steps were even taken towards an abolition of the chancery, the highest court of judicature in the kingdom; and the Mosaical law was intended to be established as the sole system of English jurisprudence.

Of all the extraordinary schemes adopted by these legislators, they had not leisure to finish any, except that which established the legal solemnization of marriage by the civil magistrate alone, without the interposition of the clergy. They found themselves exposed to the derision of the public. Among the fanatics of the House there was an active member, much noted for his long prayers, sermons, and harangues. He was a leather seller in London; his name, Praise-God Barebone. This ridiculous name, which seems to have been chosen by some poet or allegorist to suit so ridiculous a personage, struck the fancy of the people; and they commonly affixed to this assembly the appellation of Barebone's Parliament.

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