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Falsification Of English History
by [?]

I am myself, and always have been, a member of the Church of England, and am grieved to hear the many attacks against the Church [frequently most illiberal attacks], which not so much religion as political rancor gives birth to in every third journal that I take up. This I say to acquit myself of all dishonorable feelings, such as I would abhor to co-operate with, in bringing a very heavy charge against that great body in its literary capacity. Whosoever has reflected on the history of the English constitution–must be aware that the most important stage of its development lies within the reign of Charles I. It is true that the judicial execution of that prince has been allowed by many persons to vitiate all that was done by the heroic parliament of November, 1640: and the ordinary histories of England assume as a matter of course that the whole period of parliamentary history through those times is to be regarded as a period of confusion. Our constitution, say they, was formed in 1688-9. Meantime it is evident to any reflecting man that the revolution simply re-affirmed the principles developed in the strife between the two great parties which had arisen in the reign of James I., and had ripened and come to issue with each other in the reign of his son. Our constitution was not a birth of a single instant, as they would represent it, but a gradual growth and development through a long tract of time. In particular the doctrine of the king’s vicarious responsibility in the person of his ministers, which first gave a sane and salutary meaning to the doctrine of the king’s personal irresponsibility [‘The king can do no wrong’], arose undeniably between 1640 and 1648. This doctrine is the main pillar of our constitution, and perhaps the finest discovery that was ever made in the theory of government. Hitherto the doctrine that the King can do no wrong had been used not to protect the indispensable sanctity of the king’s constitutional character, but to protect the wrong. Used in this way, it was a maxim of Oriental despotism, and fit only for a nation where law had no empire. Many of the illustrious patriots of the Great Parliament saw this; and felt the necessity of abolishing a maxim so fatal to the just liberties of the people. But some of them fell into the opposite error of supposing that this abolition could be effected only by the direct negation of it; their maxim accordingly was–‘The king can do wrong,’ i.e. is responsible in his own person. In this great error even the illustrious wife of Colonel Hutchinson participated; [1] and accordingly she taxes those of her own party who scrupled to accede to the new maxim, and still adhered to the old one, with unconscientious dealing. But she misapprehended their meaning, and failed to see where they laid the emphasis: the emphasis was not laid, as it was by the royal party, on the words ‘can do no wrong‘–but on ‘The king:’ that is, wrong may be done; and in the king’s name; but it cannot be the king who did it [the king cannot constitutionally be supposed the person who did it]. By this exquisite political refinement, the old tyrannical maxim was disarmed of its sting; and the entire redress of all wrong, so indispensable to the popular liberty, was brought into perfect reconciliation with the entire inviolability of the sovereign, which is no less indispensable to the popular liberty. There is moreover a double wisdom in the new sense: for not only is one object [the redress of wrong] secured in conjunction with another object [the king’s inviolability] hitherto held irreconcilable,– but even with a view to the first object alone a much more effectual means is applied, because one which leads to no schism in the state, than could have been applied by the blank negation of the maxim; i.e. by lodging the responsibility exactly where the executive power [ergo the power of resisting this responsibility] was lodged. Here then is one example in illustration of my thesis–that the English constitution was in a great measure gradually evolved in the contest between the different parties in the reign of Charles I. Now, if this be so, it follows that for constitutional history no period is so important as that: and indeed, though it is true that the Revolution is the great era for the constitutional historian, because he there first finds the constitution fully developed as the ‘bright consummate flower,’ and what is equally important he there first finds the principles of our constitution ratified by a competent authority,–yet, to trace the root and growth of the constitution, the three reigns immediately preceding are still more properly the objects of his study. In proportion then as the reign of Charles I. is Important to the history of our constitution, in that proportion are those to be taxed with the most dangerous of all possible falsifications of our history, who have misrepresented either the facts or the principles of those times. Now I affirm that the clergy of the Church of England have been in a perpetual conspiracy since the era of the restoration to misrepresent both. As an illustration of what I mean I refer to the common edition of Hudibras by Dr. Grey: for the proof I might refer to some thousands of books. Dr. Grey’s is a disgusting case: for he swallowed with the most anile credulity every story, the most extravagant that the malice of those times could invent against either the Presbyterians or the Independents: and for this I suppose amongst other deformities his notes were deservedly ridiculed by Warburton. But, amongst hundreds of illustrations more respectable than Dr. Grey’s I will refer the reader to a work of our own days, the Ecclesiastical Biography [in part a republication of Walton’s Lives] edited by the present master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who is held in the highest esteem wherever he is known, and is I am persuaded perfectly conscientious and as impartial as in such a case it is possible for a high churchman to be. Yet so it is that there is scarcely one of the notes having any political reference to the period of 1640-1660, which is not disfigured by unjust prejudices: and the amount of the moral which the learned editor grounds upon the documents before him–is this, that the young student is to cherish the deepest abhorrence and contempt of all who had any share on the parliamentary side in the ‘confusions’ of the period from 1640 to 1660: that is to say of men to whose immortal exertions it was owing that the very revolution of 1688, which Dr. W. will be the first to applaud, found us with any such stock of political principles or feelings as could make a beneficial revolution possible. Where, let me ask, would have been the willingness of some Tories to construe the flight of James II. into a virtual act of abdication, or to consider even the most formal act of abdication binding against the king,-had not the great struggle of Charles’s days gradually substituted in the minds of all parties a rational veneration of the king’s office for the old superstition in behalf of the king’s person, which would have protected him from the effects of any acts however solemnly performed which affected injuriously either his own interests or the liberties of his people. Tempora mutantur: nos et mutamur in illis. Those whom we find in fierce opposition to the popular party about 1640 we find still in the same personal opposition fifty years after, but an opposition resting on far different principles: insensibly the principles of their antagonists had reached even them: and a courtier of 1689 was willing to concede more than a patriot of 1630 would have ventured to ask. Let me not be understood to mean that true patriotism is at all more shown in supporting the rights of the people than those of the king: as soon as both are defined and limited, the last are as indispensable to the integrity of the constitution–as the first: and popular freedom itself would suffer as much, though indirectly, from an invasion of Caesar’s ri
ghts–as by a more direct attack on itself. But in the 17th century the rights of the people were as yet not defined: throughout that century they were gradually defining themselves–and, as happiness to all great practical interests, defining themselves through a course of fierce and bloody contests. For the kingly rights are almost inevitably carried too high in ages of imperfect civilization: and the well-known laws of Henry the Seventh, by which he either broke or gradually sapped the power of the aristocracy, had still more extravagantly exalted them. On this account it is just to look upon democratic or popular politics as identical in the 17th century with patriotic politics. In later periods, the democrat and the patriot have sometimes been in direct opposition to each other: at that period they were inevitably in conjunction. All this, however, is in general overlooked by those who either write English history or comment upon it. Most writers of or upon English history proceed either upon servile principles, or upon no principles: and a good Spirit of English History, that is, a history which should abstract the tendencies and main results [as to laws, manners, and constitution] from every age of English history, is a work which I hardly hope to see executed. For it would require the concurrence of some philosophy, with a great deal of impartiality. How idly do we say, in speaking of the events of our own time which affect our party feelings,–‘We stand too near to these events for an impartial estimate: we must leave them to the judgment of posterity!’ For it is a fact that of the many books of memoirs written by persons who were not merely contemporary with the great civil war, but actors and even leaders in its principal scenes–there is hardly one which does not exhibit a more impartial picture of that great drama than the histories written at his day. The historian of Popery does not display half so much zealotry and passionate prejudice in speaking of the many events which have affected the power and splendor of the Papal See for the last thirty years, and under his own eyes, as he does when speaking of a reformer who lived three centuries ago–of a translator of the Bible into a vernacular tongue who lived nearly five centuries ago–of an Anti-pope–of a Charlemagne or a Gregory the Great still further removed from himself. The recent events he looks upon as accidental and unessential: but in the great enemies, or great founders of the Romish temporal power, and in the history of their actions and their motives, he feels that the whole principle of the Romish cause and its pretensions are at stake. Pretty much under the same feeling have modern writers written with a rancorous party spirit of the political struggles in the 17th century: here they fancy that they can detect the incunabula of the revolutionary spirit: here some have been so sharpsighted as to read the features of pure jacobinism: and others [2] have gone so far as to assert that all the atrocities of the French revolution had their direct parallelisms in acts done or countenanced by the virtuous and august Senate of England in 1640! Strange distortion of the understanding which can thus find a brotherly resemblance between two great historical events, which of all that ever were put on record stand off from each other in most irreconcilable enmity: the one originating, as Mr. Coleridge has observed, in excess of principle; the other in the utter defect of all moral principle whatever; and the progress of each being answerable to its origin! Yet so it is. And not a memoir-writer of that age is reprinted in this, but we have a preface from some red-hot Anti- jacobin warning us with much vapid common-place from the mischiefs and eventual anarchy of too rash a spirit of reform as displayed in the French revolution–not by the example of that French revolution, but by that of our own in the age of Charles I. The following passage from the Introduction to Sir William Waller’s Vindication published in 1793, may serve as a fair instance: ‘He’ (Sir W. Waller) ‘was, indeed, at length sensible of the misery which he had contributed to bring on his country;’ (by the way, it is a suspicious circumstance–that Sir William [3] first became sensible that his country was miserable, when he became sensible that he himself was not likely to be again employed; and became fully convinced of it, when his party lost their ascendancy:) ‘he was convinced, by fatal experience, that anarchy was a bad step towards a perfect government; that the subversion of every establishment was no safe foundation for a permanent and regular constitution: he found that pretences of reform were held up by the designing to dazzle the eyes of the unwary, etc. he found in short that reformation, by popular insurrection, must end in the destruction and cannot tend to the formation of a regular Government.’ After a good deal more of this well-meaning cant, the Introduction concludes with the following sentence:–the writer is addressing the reformers of 1793, amongst whom–‘both leaders and followers,’ he says, ‘may together reflect–that, upon speculative and visionary reformers,’ (i.e. those of 1640) ‘the severest punishment which God in his vengeance ever yet inflicted–was to curse them with the complete gratification of their own inordinate desires.’ I quote this passage–not as containing any thing singular, but for the very reason that it is not singular: it expresses in fact the universal opinion: notwithstanding which I am happy to say that it is false. What ‘complete gratification of their own desires’ was ever granted to the ‘reformers’ in question? On the contrary, it is well known (and no book illustrates that particular fact so well as Sir William Waller’s) that as early as 1647 the army had too effectually subverted the just relations between itself and parliament–not to have suggested fearful anticipations to all discerning patriots of that unhappy issue which did in reality blight their prospects. And, when I speak of an ‘unhappy issue,’ I would be understood only of the immediate issue: for the remote issue was–the revolution of 1688, as I have already asserted. Neither is it true that even the immediate issue was ‘unhappy’ to any extent which can justify the ordinary language in which it is described. Here again is a world of delusions. We hear of ‘anarchy,’ of ‘confusions,’ of ‘proscriptions,’ of ‘bloody and ferocious tyranny.’ All is romance; there was no anarchy; no confusions; no proscriptions; no tyranny in the sense designed. The sequestrations, forfeitures, and punishments of all sorts which were inflicted by the conquering party on their antagonists–went on by due course of law; and the summary justice of courts martial was not resorted to in England: except for the short term of the two wars, and the brief intermediate campaign of 1648, the country was in a very tranquil state. Nobody was punished without an open trial; and all trials proceeded in the regular course, according to the ancient forms, and in the regular courts of justice. And as to ‘tyranny,’ which is meant chiefly of the acts of Cromwell’s government, it should be remembered that the Protectorate lasted not a quarter of the period in question (1640-1660); a fact which is constantly forgotten even by very eminent writers, who speak as though Cromwell had drawn his sword in January 1649–cut off the king’s head– instantly mounted his throne–and continued to play the tyrant for the whole remaining period of his life (nearly ten years). Secondly, as to the kind of tyranny which Cromwell exercised, the misconception is ludicrous: continental writers have a notion, well justified by the language of English writers, that Cromwell was a ferocious savage who built his palace of human skulls and desolated his country. Meantime, he was simply a strong-minded–rough-built Englishman, with a character thoroughly English, and exceedingly good-natured. Gray valued himself upon his critical knowledge of English history: yet how thoughtlessly
does he express the abstract of Cromwell’s life in the line on the village Cromwell–‘Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood!’ How was Cromwell guilty of his country’s blood? What blood did he cause to be shed? A great deal was shed no doubt in the wars (though less, by the way, than is imagined): but in those Cromwell was but a servant of the parliament: and no one will allege that he had any hand in causing a single war. After he attained the sovereign power, no more domestic wars arose: and as to a few persons who were executed for plots and conspiracies against his person, they were condemned upon evidence openly given and by due course of law. With respect to the general character of his government, it is evident that in the unsettled and revolutionary state of things which follows a civil war some critical cases will arise to demand an occasional ‘vigor beyond the law’–such as the Roman government allowed of in the dictatorial power. But in general, Cromwell’s government was limited by law: and no reign in that century, prior to the revolution, furnishes fewer instances of attempts to tamper with the laws –to overrule them–to twist them to private interpretations–or to dispense with them. As to his major-generals of counties, who figure in most histories of England as so many Ali Pachas that impaled a few prisoners every morning before breakfast–or rather as so many ogres that ate up good Christian men, women and children alive, they were disagreeable people who were disliked much in the same way as our commissioners of the income-tax were disliked in the memory of us all; and heartily they would have laughed at the romantic and bloody masquerade in which they are made to figure in the English histories. What then was the ‘tyranny’ of Cromwell’s government, which is confessedly complained of even in those days? The word ‘tyranny’ was then applied not so much to the mode in which his power was administered (except by the prejudiced)–as to its origin. However mercifully a man may reign,–yet, if he have no right to reign at all, we may in one sense call him a tyrant; his power not being justly derived, and resting upon an unlawful (i.e. a military) basis. As a usurper, and one who had diverted the current of a grand national movement to selfish and personal objects, Cromwell was and will be called a tyrant; but not in the more obvious sense of the word. Such are the misleading statements which disfigure the History of England in its most important chapter. They mislead by more than a simple error of fact: those, which I have noticed last, involve a moral anachronism; for they convey images of cruelty and barbarism such as could not co-exist with the national civilization at that time; and whosoever has not corrected this false picture by an acquaintance with the English literature of that age, must necessarily image to himself a state of society as rude and uncultured as that which prevailed during the wars of York and Lancaster–i.e. about two centuries earlier. But those, with which I introduced this article, are still worse; because they involve an erroneous view of constitutional history, and a most comprehensive act of ingratitude: the great men of the Long Parliament paid a heavy price for their efforts to purchase for their descendants a barrier to irresponsible power and security from the anarchy of undefined regal prerogative: in these efforts most of them made shipwreck of their own tranquillity and peace; that such sacrifices were made unavailingly (as it must have seemed to themselves), and that few of them lived to see the ‘good old cause’ finally triumphant, does not cancel their claims upon our gratitude–but rather strengthen them by the degree in which it aggravated the difficulty of bearing such sacrifices with patience. But whence come these falsifications of history? I believe, from two causes; first (as I have already said) from the erroneous tone impressed upon the national history by the irritated spirit of the clergy of the established church: to the religious zealotry of those times–the church was the object of especial attack; and its members were naturally exposed to heavy sufferings: hence their successors are indisposed to find my good in a cause which could lead to such a result. It is their manifest right to sympathize with their own order in that day; and in such a case it is almost their duty to be incapable of an entire impartiality. Meantime they have carried this much too far: the literature of England must always be in a considerable proportion lodged in their hands; and the extensive means thus placed at their disposal for injuriously coloring that important part of history they have used with no modesty or forbearance. There is not a page of the national history even in its local subdivisions which they have not stained with the atrabilious hue of their wounded remembrances: hardly a town in England, which stood a siege for the king or the parliament, but has some printed memorial of its constancy and its sufferings; and in nine cases out of ten the editor is a clergyman of the established church, who has contrived to deepen ‘the sorrow of the time’ by the harshness of his commentary. Surely it is high time that the wounds of the 17th century should close; that history should take a more commanding and philosophic station; and that brotherly charity should now lead us to a saner view of constitutional politics; or a saner view of politics to a more comprehensive charity. The other cause of this falsification springs out of a selfishness which has less claim to any indulgence–viz. the timidity with which the English Whigs of former days and the party to whom They [4] succeeded, constantly shrank from acknowledging any alliance with the great men of the Long Parliament under the nervous horror of being confounded with the regicides of 1649. It was of such urgent importance to them, for any command over the public support, that they should acquit themselves of an sentiment of lurking toleration for regicide, with which their enemies never failed to load them, that no mode of abjuring it seemed sufficiently emphatic to them hence it was that Addison, with a view to the interest of his party, thought fit when in Switzerland, to offer a puny insult to the memory of General Ludlow; hence it is that even in our own days, no writers have insulted Milton with so much bitterness and shameless irreverence as the Whigs; though it is true that some few Whigs, more however in their literary than in their political character, have stepped forward in his vindication. At this moment I recollect a passage in the writings of a modern Whig bishop–in which, for the sake of creating a charge of falsehood against Milton, the author has grossly mis-translated a passage in the Defensio pro Pop. Anglicano: and, if that bishop were not dead, I would here take the liberty of rapping his knuckles–were it only for breaking Priscian’s head. To return over to the clerical feud against the Long Parliament,–it was a passage in a very pleasing work of this day (Ecclesiastical Biography) which suggested to me the whole of what I have now written. Its learned editor, who is incapable of uncandid feelings except in what concerns the interests of his order, has adopted the usual tone in regard to the men of 1640 throughout his otherwise valuable annotations: and somewhere or other (in the Life of Hammond, according to my remembrance) he has made a statement to this effect–That the custom prevalent among children in that age of asking their parents’ blessing was probably first brought into disuse by the Puritans. Is it possible to imagine a perversity of prejudice more unreasonable? The unamiable side of the patriotic character in the seventeenth century was unquestionably its religious bigotry; which, however, had its ground in a real fervor of religious feeling and a real strength of religious principle somewhat exceeding the ordinary standard of the 19th century. But, however palliated, their bigotry is not to be denied; it was often offensive from its excess; and
ludicrous in its direction. Many harmless customs, many ceremonies and rituals that had a high positive value, their frantic intolerance quarrelled with: and for my part I heartily join in the sentiment of Charles II.–applying it as he did, but a good deal more extensively, that their religion ‘was not a religion for a gentleman:’ indeed all sectarianism, but especially that which has a modern origin– arising and growing up within our own memories, unsupported by a grand traditional history of persecutions–conflicts–and martyrdoms, lurking moreover in blind alleys, holes, corners, and tabernacles, must appear spurious and mean in the eyes of him who has been bred up in the grand classic forms of the Church of England or the Church of Rome. But, because the bigotry of the Puritans was excessive and revolting, is that a reason for fastening upon them all the stray evils of omission or commission for which no distinct fathers can be found? The learned editor does not pretend that there is any positive evidence, or presumption even, for imputing to the Puritans a dislike to the custom in question: but, because he thinks it a good custom, his inference is that nobody could have abolished it but the Puritans. Now who does not see that, if this had been amongst the usages discountenanced by the Puritans, it would on that account have been the more pertinaciously maintained by their enemies in church and state? Or, even if this usage were of a nature to be prohibited by authority, as the public use of the liturgy–organs–surplices, etc., who does not see that with regard to that as well as to other Puritanical innovations there would have been a reflux of zeal in the restoration of the king which would have established them in more strength than ever? But it is evident to the unprejudiced that the usage in question gradually went out in submission to the altered spirit of the times. It was one feature of a general system of manners, fitted by its piety and simplicity for a pious and simple age, and which therefore even the 17th century had already outgrown. It is not to be inferred that filial affection and reverence have decayed amongst us, because they no longer express themselves in the same way. In an age of imperfect culture, all passions and emotions are in a more elementary state–‘speak a plainer language’–and express themselves externally: in such an age the frame and constitution of society is more picturesque; the modes of life rest more undisguisedly upon the basis of the absolute and original relation of things: the son is considered in his sonship, the father in his fatherhood: and the manners take an appropriate coloring. Up to the middle of the 17th century there were many families in which the children never presumed to sit down in their parents’ presence. But with us, in an age of more complete intellectual culture, a thick disguise is spread over the naked foundations of human life; and the instincts of good taste banish from good company the expression of all the profounder emotions. A son therefore, who should kneel down in this age to ask his papa’s blessing on leaving town for Brighton or Bath–would be felt by himself to be making a theatrical display of filial duty, such as would be painful to him in proportion as his feelings were sincere. All this would have been evident to the learned editor in any case but one which regarded the Puritans: they were at any rate to be molested: in default of any graver matter, a mere fanciful grievance is searched out. Still, however, nothing was effected; fanciful or real, the grievance must be connected with the Puritans: here lies the offence, there lies the Puritans: it would be very agreeable to find some means of connecting the one with the other: but how shall this be done? Why, in default of all other means, the learned editor assumes the connection. He leaves the reader with an impression that the Puritans are chargeable with a serious wound to the manners of the nation in a point affecting the most awful of the household charities: and he fails to perceive that for this whole charge his sole ground is– that it would be very agreeable to him if he had a ground. Such is the power of the esprit de corps to palliate and recommend as colorable the very weakest logic to a man of acknowledged learning and talent!–In conclusion I must again disclaim any want of veneration and entire affection for the Established Church: the very prejudices and injustice, with which I tax the English clergy, have a generous origin: but it is right to point the attention of historical students to their strength and the effect which they have had. They have been indulged to excess; they have disfigured the grandest page in English history; they have hid the true descent and tradition of our constitutional history; and, by impressing upon the literature of the country a false conception of the patriotic party in and out of Parliament, they have stood in the way of a great work,–a work which, according to my ideal of it, would be the most useful that could just now be dedicated to the English public–viz. a philosophic record of the revolutions of English History. The English Constitution, as proclaimed and ratified in 1688-9, is in its kind, the noblest work of the human mind working in conjunction with Time, and what in such a case we may allowably call Providence. Of this chef d’oeuvre of human wisdom it were desirable that we should have a proportionable history: for such a history the great positive qualification would be a philosophic mind: the great negative qualification would be this [which to the established clergy may now be recommended as a fit subject for their magnanimity]; viz. complete conquest over those prejudices which have hitherto discolored the greatest era of patriotic virtue by contemplating the great men of that era under their least happy aspect–namely, in relation to the Established Church.