Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
King and Parliament
By David Hume (17111776)
From the History of England
IN the summer of 1643, while the negotiations were carried on with Scotland, the parliament had summoned an assembly at Westminster, consisting of one hundred and twenty-one divines and thirty laymen, celebrated in their party for piety and learning. By their advice, alterations were made in the Thirty-nine Articles, or in the metaphysical doctrines of the Church; and what was of greater importance, the liturgy was entirely abolished, and in its stead a new Directory for worship was established; by which, suitably to the spirit of the Puritans, the utmost liberty both in praying and preaching was indulged to the public teachers. By the Solemn League and Covenant, Episcopacy was abjured, as destructive of all true piety; and a national engagement, attended with every circumstance that could render a promise sacred and obligatory, was entered into with the Scots, never to suffer its readmission. All these measures showed little spirit of accommodation in the parliament; and the kings commissioners were not surprised to find the establishment of Presbytery and the Directory positively demanded, together with the subscription of the Covenant, both by the king and kingdom.
Had Charles been of a disposition to neglect all theological controversy, he yet had been obliged, in good policy, to adhere to episcopal jurisdiction; not only because it was favourable to monarchy, but because all his adherents were passionately devoted to it; and to abandon them, in what they regarded as so important an article, was forever to relinquish their friendship and assistance. But Charles had never attained such enlarged principles. He deemed bishops essential to the very being of a Christian church; and he thought himself bound, by more sacred ties than those of policy, or even of honour, to the support of that order. His concessions, therefore, on this head, he judged sufficient, when he agreed that an indulgence should be given to tender consciences with regard to ceremonies; that the bishops should exercise no act of jurisdiction or ordination without the consent and counsel of such presbyters as should be chosen by the clergy of each diocese; that they should reside constantly in their diocese, and be bound to preach every Sunday; that pluralities be abolished, that abuses in ecclesiastical courts be redressed, and that a hundred thousand pounds be levied on the bishops estates and the chapter lands for payment of debts contracted by the parliament. These concessions, though considerable, gave no satisfaction to the parliamentary commissioners; and, without abating anything of their rigor on this head, they proceeded to their demands with regard to the militia.
The kings partisans had all along maintained that the fears and jealousies of the parliament, after the securities so early and easily given to public liberty, were either feigned or groundless; and that no human institution could be better poised and adjusted than was now the government of England. By the abolition of the star chamber and court of high commission, the prerogative, they said, has lost all that coercive power by which it had formerly suppressed or endangered liberty; by the establishment of triennial parliaments, it can have no leisure to acquire new powers, or guard itself, during any time, from the inspection of that vigilant assembly; by the slender revenue of the crown, no king can ever attain such influence as to procure a repeal of these salutary statutes, and while the prince commands no military force, he will in vain by violence attempt an infringement of laws so clearly defined by means of late disputes, and so passionately cherished by all his subjects. In this situation, surely the nation, governed by so virtuous a monarch, may for the present remain in tranquillity, and try whether it be not possible, by peaceful arts, to elude that danger with which it is pretended its liberties are still threatened.
But though the royalists insisted on these plausible topics before the commencement of war, they were obliged to own, that the progress of civil commotions had somewhat abated the force and evidence of this reasoning. If the power of the militia, said the opposite party, be intrusted to the king, it would not now be difficult for him to abuse that authority. By the rage of intestine discord, his partisans are inflamed into an extreme hatred against their antagonists; and have contracted, no doubt, some prejudices against popular privileges, which, in their apprehension, have been the source of so much disorder. Were the arms of the state, therefore, put entirely into such hands, what public security, it may be demanded, can be given to liberty, or what private security to those who, in opposition to the letter of the law, have so generously ventured their lives in its defence? In compliance with this apprehension, Charles offered that the arms of the state should be intrusted, during three years, to twenty commissioners, who should be named either by common agreement between him and the parliament, or one half by him, the other by the parliament. And after the expiration of that term, he insisted that his constitutional authority over the militia should again return to him.
The parliamentary commissioners at first demanded, that the power of the sword should forever be entrusted to such persons as the parliament alone should appoint; but afterwards they relaxed so far as to require that authority only for seven years; after which it was not to return to the king, but to be settled by bill, or by common agreement between him and his parliament. The kings commissioners asked, whether jealousies and fears were all on one side; and whether the prince, from such violent attempts and pretensions as he had experienced, had not at least as great reason to entertain apprehensions for his authority, as they for their liberty? Whether there were any equity in securing only one party, and leaving the other, during the space of seven years, entirely at the mercy of their enemies? Whether, if unlimited power were intrusted to the parliament during so long a period, it would not be easy for them to frame the subsequent bill in the manner most agreeable to themselves, and keep forever possession of the sword, as well as of every article of civil power and jurisdiction.
The truth is, after the commencement of war, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to find security for both parties, especially for that of the parliament. Amidst such violent animosities, power alone could insure safety; and the power of one side was necessarily attended with danger to the other. Few or no instances occur in history of an equal, peaceful, and durable accommodation that has been concluded between two factions which had been inflamed into civil war.
With regard to Ireland, there were no greater hopes of agreement between the parties. The parliament demanded, that the truce with the rebels should be declared null; that the management of the war should be given over entirely to the parliament; and that, after the conquest of Ireland, the nomination of the lord lieutenant and of the judges, or in other words the sovereignty of that kingdom, should likewise remain in their hands.
What rendered an accommodation more desperate was, that the demands on these three heads, however exorbitant, were acknowledged, by the parliamentary commissioners, to be nothing but preliminaries. After all these were granted, it would be necessary to proceed to the discussion of those other demands, still more exorbitant, which a little before had been transmitted to the king at Oxford. Such ignominious terms were there insisted on, that worse could scarcely be demanded, were Charles totally vanquished, a prisoner, and in chains. The king was required to attaint and except from a general pardon forty of the most considerable of his English subjects, and nineteen of his Scottish, together with all Popish recusants in both kingdoms who had borne arms for him. It was insisted that forty-eight more, with all the members who had sitten in either house at Oxford, all lawyers and divines who had embraced the kings party, should be rendered incapable of any office, be forbidden the exercise of their profession, be prohibited from coming within the verge of the court, and forfeit the third of their estates to the parliament. It was required that whoever had borne arms for the king, should forfeit the tenth of their estates; or, if that did not suffice, the sixth, for the payment of public debts. As if royal authority were not sufficiently annihilated by such terms, it was demanded that the court of wards should be abolished; that all the considerable officers of the crown, and all the judges, should be appointed by parliament; and that the right of peace and war should not be exercised without the consent of that assembly. The Presbyterians, it must be confessed, after insisting on such conditions, differed only in words from the Independents, who required the establishment of a pure republic. When the debates had been carried on to no purpose during twenty days among the commissioners, they separated, and returned; those of the king to Oxford, those of the parliament to London.
A little before the commencement of his fruitless treaty, a deed was executed by the parliament, which proved their determined resolution to yield nothing, but to proceed in the same violent and imperious manner with which they had at first entered on these dangerous enterprises. Archbishop Laud, the most favoured minister of the king, was brought to the scaffold; and in this instance the public might see, that popular assemblies, as, by their very number, they are in a great measure exempt from the restraint of shame, so when they also overleap the bounds of law, naturally break out into acts of the greatest tyranny and injustice.
From the time that Laud had been committed, the House of Commons, engaged in enterprises of greater moment, had found no leisure to finish his impeachment, and he had patiently endured so long an imprisonment, without being brought to any trial. After the union with Scotland, the bigoted prejudices of that nation revived the like spirit in England; and the sectaries resolved to gratify their vengeance in the punishment of this prelate who had so long, by his authority and by the execution of penal laws, kept their zealous spirit under confinement. He was accused of high treason, in endeavouring to subvert the fundamental laws, and of other high crimes and misdemeanours. The same illegality of an accumulative crime and a constructive evidence which appeared in the case of Strafford, the same violence and iniquity in conducting the trial, are conspicuous throughout the whole course of this prosecution. The groundless charge of Popery, though belied by his whole life and conduct, was continually urged against the prisoner; and every error rendered unpardonable by this imputation, which was supposed to imply the height of all enormities. This man, my lords, said Serjeant Wilde, concluding his long speech against him, is like Naaman the Syrian; a great man, but a leper.
We shall not enter into a detail of this matter, which at present seems to admit of little controversy. It suffices to say, that after a long trial, and the examination of above a hundred and fifty witnesses, the Commons found so little likelihood of obtaining a judicial sentence against Laud, that they were obliged to have recourse to their legislative authority, and to pass an ordinance for taking away the life of this aged prelate. Notwithstanding the low condition into which the House of Peers was fallen, there appeared some intention of rejecting this ordinance; and the popular leaders were again obliged to apply to the multitude, and to extinguish, by threats of new tumults, the small remains of liberty possessed by the Upper House. Seven peers alone voted in this important question. The rest, either from shame or fear, took care to absent themselves.
Laud, who had behaved during his trial with the spirit and vigour of genius, sunk not under the horrors of his execution, but though he had usually professed himself apprehensive of a violent death, he found all his fears to be dissipated before that superior courage by which he was animated. No one, said he, can be more willing to send me out of life, than I am desirous to go. Even upon the scaffold, and during the intervals of his prayers, he was harassed and molested by Sir John Clotworthy, a zealot of the reigning sect, and a great leader in the Lower House: this was the time he chose for examining the principles of the dying primate, and trepanning him into a confession, that he trusted for his salvation to the merits of good works, not to the death of the Redeemer. Having extricated himself from these theological toils, the archbishop laid his head on the block, and it was severed from the body at one blow. Those religious opinions for which he suffered, contributed, no doubt, to the courage and constancy of his end. Sincere he undoubtedly was, and, however misguided, actuated by pious motives in all his pursuits; and it is to be regretted that a man of such spirit, who conducted his enterprises with so much warmth and industry, had not entertained more enlarged views, and embraced principles more favourable to the general happiness of society.
The great and important advantage which the party gained by Straffords death, may in some degree palliate the iniquity of the sentence pronounced against him; but the execution of this old, infirm prelate, who had so long remained an inoffensive prisoner, can be ascribed to nothing but vengeance and bigotry in those severe religionists by whom the parliament was entirely governed. That he deserved a better fate was not questioned by any reasonable man; the degree of his merit in other respects was disputed. Some accused him of recommending slavish doctrines, of promoting persecution, and of encouraging superstition; while others thought that his conduct in these three particulars would admit of apology and extenuation.
That the letter of the law, as much as the most flaming court sermon, inculcates passive obedience is apparent; and though the spirit of a limited government seems to require, in extraordinary cases, some mitigation of so rigorous a doctrine, it must be confessed that the presiding genius of the English constitution had rendered a mistake in this particular very natural and excusable. To inflict death, at least, on those who depart from the exact line of truth in these nice questions, so far from being favorable to national liberty, savors strongly of the spirit of tyranny and proscription.
Toleration had hitherto been so little the principle of any Christian sect, that even the Catholics, the remnant of the religion professed by their forefathers, could not obtain from the English the least indulgence. This very House of Commons, in their famous remonstrance, took care to justify themselves, as from the highest imputation, from any intention to relax the golden reins of discipline, as they called them, or to grant any toleration; and the enemies of the Church were so fair from the beginning as not to lay claim to liberty of conscience, which they called a toleration for soul-murder. They openly challenged the superiority, and even menaced the Established Church with that persecution which they afterwards exercised against her with such severity. And if the question be considered in the view of policy, though a sect, already formed and advanced, may, with good reason, demand a toleration, what title had the Puritans to this indulgence, who were just on the point of separation from the Church, and whom, it might be hoped, some wholesome and legal severities would still retain in obedience?
Whatever ridicule to a philosophical mind, may be thrown on pious ceremonies, it must be confessed that, during a very religious age, no institutions can be more advantageous to the rude multitude, and tend more to mollify that fierce and gloomy spirit of devotion to which they are subject. Even the English Church, though it had retained a share of Popish ceremonies, may justly be thought too naked and unadorned, and still to approach too near the abstract and spiritual religion of the Puritans. Laud and his associates, by reviving a few primitive institutions of this nature, corrected the error of the first reformers, and presented to the affrightened and astonished mind some sensible, exterior observances, which might occupy it during its religious exercises, and abate the violence of its disappointed efforts. The thought, no longer bent on that divine and mysterious essence, so superior to the narrow capacities of mankind, was able, by means of the new model of devotion, to relax itself in the contemplation of pictures, postures, vestments, buildings; and all the fine arts which minister to religion, thereby received additional encouragement. The primate, it is true, conducted this scheme, not with the enlarged sentiments and cool reflection of a legislator, but with the intemperate zeal of a sectary; and by overlooking the circumstances of the times, served rather to inflame that religious fury which he meant to repress. But this blemish is more to be regarded as a general imputation on the whole age, than any particular failing of Lauds; and it is sufficient for his vindication to observe, that his errors were the most excusable of all those which prevailed during that zealous period.