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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

The Republic (1649—1653)

The Republic (1649—1653).

To the Monarchy succeeded the Republic, or Commonwealth. It lasted for four years and three months—down to 20th April, 1653, the date of the Cromwellian coup d'état. Short as the period is, it is the grandest in English annals, and the most pregnant with political instruction. On 4th January, 1649, the House resolved: "That the People are, under God, the original of all just power; that the Commons of England in Parliament assembled being chosen by, and representing the People, have the supreme power in this nation; that whatsoever is enacted or declared for law by the Commons in Parliament assembled hath the force of law, and all the people of this nation are concluded thereby, although the consent and concurrence of King or House of Peers be not had thereto." The Monarchy was formally abolished, it being voted that "The office of a King in this nation is unnecessary, burthensome, and dangerous." The Peers were voted simply "useless and dangerous." The Act constituting England a Republic, set forth "that the People of England and of all the dominions and territories thereunto belonging are, and shall be, and are hereby constituted, made, estab- page 62 lished, and confirmed to be a Commonwealth and Free State, and shall henceforward be governed as a Commonwealth and Free State by the Supreme Authority of the People—the Representatives of the People in Parliament—and by such as they shall appoint and constitute Officers and Ministers for the good of the People, and that without any King or House of Lords."

Later in the same year the following affirmation of allegiance was formulated: "I do declare and promise that I will be true and faithful to the Commonwealth of England without a King or House of Lords.—a formula which would suit Mr. Bradlaugh exactly. The Great Seal was ordered to be broken by a workman in face of the House, and a new one substituted—"The Great Seal of England, 1648." On the one side was a map of England and Ireland, on the other the House of Commons in session, with the legend, "In the first year of freedom, by God's blessing restored, 1648." The device was by Sir Henry Martin, the wittiest man in the House, and the staunchest of Republicans.

The executive functions of the House were vested in a Council of State, consisting of forty-one members, quorum nine. At first the President of this Republican Cabinet was elected at each sitting, Bradshaw and Cromwell being frequent occupants of the chair. Eventually the honour of Premiership was monthly. Their instructions were (1) to command and settle the militia of England and Ireland; (2) to appoint and dispose of magazines and stores : (3) to set forth such a navy as they should think fit; and (4) to sit and execute the powers given them for a year. John Milton was appointed the Secretary for Foreign Tongues to this remarkable council at a salary of £300 per annum.

Mr. Gladstone and other Prime Ministers have talked many senseless constitutional common-places on the dangers and inconveniences of large Cabinets, but the achievements of this illustrious Council by sea and land, in peace and war, have had no parallel in English history. In point of administrative efficiency the present Gladstonian Ministry of all the talents were but as pigmies compared with these giants. The members did not require to post off to Balmoral or Osborne to procure a useless royal signature in those times. They were simply members of an Executive Committee of the page 63 House, responsible to no other authority, and liable to removal by vote at the end of their annual term of office. Is there not here a lesson in governmental simplicity for constitution-builders to profit by? Complexity is as objectionable in politics as in mechanics. The simpler the political organism the better. The boasted balance of powers in the British Constitution merely produces rotatory motion. Progress is rendered next to impossible.

Three faults, and only three have ever been seriously laid to the charge of the Republican House and its illustrious Council of State. Firstly it was nicknamed the "Rump," because it sat after the partizans of Charles Stuart had been subjected to Pride's Purge. But Parliament was fighting the King, and the expulsion of his supporters from the House was nothing more than an incident—a regrettable incident, I admit—in the war. The ejected would be much less dangerous in the field than in the Council. "We shall now know," said Vane when Colonel Pride appeared on the scene, "who is on the side of the king and who is on the side of the people."

Secondly, it has been asserted by admirers of Oliver Cromwell, as by the dupes of Napoleon III., that the coup d'état prevented anarchy. But the fact was that from 1648 to 1653 the country, as a whole, was profoundly tranquil and prosperous. There was, indeed, no anarchy but what was caused by the unprincipled ambition and unscrupulous intrigues of Cromwell. But to do that arch-traitor justice he never for a moment pretended that the Civil Authority was unable to maintain order. He had been one of them and knew better.

The third charge is less easily rebutted. The Republican Administration have been accused, and Cromwell loudly accused them of a desire to perpetuate their own power unduly, but the House was in the very act of passing a Dissolution Bill, substantially in accordance with the famous Agreement of the People, when it was forcibly broken up by the very man who had long been planning its overthrow on the pretext that it would not dissolve! Sir Henry Martin's reason for being in no hurry to appeal to the constituencies, was, in the circumstances, equally witty and wise. The Republic was a tender infant, and who "so proper to bring it up as the mother who had brought it into the world?"