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some advocates of Cromwell have indulged in this indis-
criminate and unphilosophic mode of speaking of his
various opponents.' It was hardly necessary to go so far
as ' philosophy,' whatever the critic may mean by that.
It was enough to remember, what hardly needed Hobbes's
authority to recommend it, that to a public writing there
belong good manners. There are many persons whose
capacity to pass Bishop Berkeley's Pons Asinorum in
philosophy might be matter of grave doubt, who never-
theless might hope, by due care, to attain to a decent pro-
ficiency in good manners, and in some other things.
Some of these other things prescribe a somewhat different
kind of ' command over facts ' from that exhibited by
that great man, the eminent advocate above referred to,
and by the critic whose zeal for his client has led him to
exhibit a similar ' command over facts.'

For the purpose of throwing further light upon this


critic's 'principles of evidence,' and the doctrine involved
in them that ' the sincerity of Cromwell lias come out
imimpeached and stainless from the crucial test of the
collection and juxtaposition of his letters, written to so
many people and under such varying circumstances,' I
will cite the opinion of Samuel Johnson on the question,
how far a man's letters can be considered as exhibiting a
true view of his character. Johnson is speaking of Pope,
but he extends his remarks to men in general. ' Of his
social qualities,' says Johnson, ' if an estimate be made
from his letters, an opinion too favourable cannot easily
be formed ; they exhibit a perpetual and unclouded
effulgence of general benevolence and particular fondness.
There is nothing but liberality, gratitude, constancy, and
tenderness. It has been so long said as to be commonly
believed that the true characters of men may be found in
their letters, and that he who writes to his friend lays his
heart open before him. But the truth is, that such were
the simple friendships of the Golden Age, and are now
the friendships only of children. Very few can boast of
hearts which they dare lay open to themselves, and of
which, by whatever accident exposed, they do not shun a
distinct and continued view ; and certainly what we hide
from ourselves we do not show to our friends. There is,
indeed, no transaction which offers stronger temptation to
fallacy and sophistication than epistolary intercourse.' ^

Those cases in which letters let us into the characters
of men — as the letters betw^een Laud and Strafford, which
furnish proof of the designs of the writers against the
English Constitution, and also of their pride, cruelty, and

^ Jolnison'y Life of Pope, in his Lives of the Poets, vol, iii. pp. 150, 157,
Loudon, 1821.


insolence, are exceptional — at least form a totally distinct
class of letters, the characteristic of which is that they
contain admissions and disclosures against the writers.
But Cromwell's letters contain no such disclosures ; and
the protestations of virtue and disinterestedness which
they contain must be taken as worth no more than the
effulgence of general benevolence in the letters of Pope,
which was worth extremely little.

In regard to speeches, if the true characters of men are
not to be found in their letters, still less are they to be
found in their speeches. If Oliver Cromwell is to be set
down as a thoroughly sincere and honourable man on
the strength of his speeches, surely the Emperor Tiberius,
who could make such a speech as Tacitus has given in the
thuly-eighth chapter of the fourth book of his ' Annals '

a speech glowing with an unclouded effulgence of

general benevolence — must be reckoned a man of extra-
ordinary virtue. Now while Tacitus gives this speech, he
also gives some particulars — and Suetonius gives more —
which I fear might not quite meet with the approbation
of this new school of historical criticism. I fear that if
they should undertake to promote Tiberius to the rank of
one of their heroes, they would have to treat Tacitus and
Suetonius with as little ceremony as they treat Ludlow,
Mrs. Hutchinson, and Whitelock.

I have already given one example of this critic's
' command over facts ' in his description of ' Whitelock's
Memorials.' Another is his statement that he had made
the astonishing discovery ' of the fact, that forty years ago
Mr. Godwin professedly based those chapters in his
"History of the Commonwealth," which cover the period
occupied by Mr. Bisset's volumes, on those very papers ; '
this discovery amounting to no more than this, that Mr.


Godwin says so in liis prefoce, whereas, as I have shown,
his book proves that he had read very httle of those
papers, and that even that little he has not reported
aceurately. And yet on this ground — the ground, namely,
of having read Mr. Godwin's pr^eface — he hastens, for the
honourable purpose of damaging my book, to publish a
criticism within a month of the publication of that book,
in which criticism he pronounces, with all the pomp of
judicial authority, knowledge and wisdom, that I have
been ' working, not on materials unknown to every pre-
ceding writer, but on those which an historian of the
same period employed forty years ago.' And this asser-
tion he proves, not by showing that Mr. Godwin had used
those materials, but by showing that Mr. Godwin has
said that he had done so ; as he proves Cromwell to be a
man of integrity and sincerity, not by showing that
Cromwell was so, but by referring to his letters, in which,
of course, Cromwell says he was so. And yet this critic
writes about 'the principles of evidence' as if he had
thorouo'hly mastered them.

He charges me with ' reviving the old theory of Crom-
well as a selfish and designing hypocrite ; ' and he also
says that I 'belong to the old class of historians, who
have very little other division of character than into ' bad
and good men, heroes or demigods, or villains ; ' and
that I 'seem to be incapable of conceiving of a mixed
character and mixed motives.' I do not know what he
means by ' the old class of historians ; ' but I will show
how far this is another instance of his astonishing ' com-
mand over facts.'

At page 219 of the second volume of my ' Ilistory of
the Commonwealth ' are these words : —

' In attempting to analyse the springs of action of such


a character as CromweU'ts, it is difficult to avoid (and I
do not pretend to be able to avoid) some apparent or
even real inconsistencies. For certain points, which at
times seem to be tolerably clear, again become involved
in impenetrable darkness, and what seemed the clue is
lost. Moreover, as regards inconsistency, may not there
be inconsistency in the actual hfe of a man ? In attempt-
ing to portray an actual life we must not condemn a part
of that life which is laudable, because we know the end,
which is not so. There is a time when we only see and
reverence in Cromwell the Wallace, the Tell, the Wash-
ington of his country — a man full of compassion for the
oppressed, and indignation against the oppressor — a time
when we rejoice in his fortune, and honour his wisdom
and valour. But, of all this, clouds and darkness rest
upon the end. And while we honour the valour and
rejoice in the fortune of the successful champion of his
country's liberties, we need not, in order to make a fancy
portrait apparently consistent and complete, but really
untrue to nature and fact, drag forward the end, which
will come soon enough, when we shall have to pass judg-
ment on deeds which he who did them may once have
believed it impossible for all the temptations of earth and
hell to make him do.'

In accordance with these principles I have defended
Cromwell against the charge of unnecessary severity at
Drogheda and Wexford. ' It is as unfair,' I have said
(vol. i. p. 126), ' to judge of the storm of Drogheda with-
out keeping in view the inhuman massacres of 1641, as it
would be to judge of the storm of Lucknow without
remembering the massacre of Cawnpore.' And after
quoting John Maidstone's words that Cromwell ' was


naturally compassionate towards objects in distress to an
effeminate measure,' I add tliat 'as liis compassion was
great towards sufferers, so was liis wi-atli terrible against
those who had taken advantage of their hel[)lessness ; and
that it was no fanatical imitation of the Hebrew at
Jericho and at Ai which directed the avenging slaughters
of Drogheda and AV'exl'urel, noi against unarmed men but
men armed to the teeth, and who even if not themselves
the murderers, were the abettors of tlie murderers of
unarmed men, and of women, and children.'

So far have I been from dividing men, as he asserts,
into ' heroes or demigods and villains,' that I have taken
the greatest pains to analyse Cromwell's character and to
exhibit the proportions of good and evil. I have come
to the conclusion that the evil in it ultimately prevailed
over the good, and I adhere to that opinion, formed
after long and carefully weighing the evidence.

While therefore I thoroughly agree with Mr. Carlyle
in honouring Cromwell as the champion of the oppressed,
aud the chief instrument of the vengeance of an outraged
nation, I as thoroughly dissent from him in his defence of
Cromwell's expulsion of the Long Parliament and as-
sumption of the supreme power. So far indeed do I
dissent that I think (as I have said vol. ii. p. 394, note) that
' many arguments might be found in defence of Csesar
and Bonaparte, which do not apply in the least to the
case of Cromwell.' Ciesar and Bonaparte might use the
plea of necessity with much more weight than Cromwell
could ; for in his case there w\as no anarchy, but a
government that governed far better than he did. In
fact the course which Mr. Carl3de appears to have consi-
dered himself obliged to have recourse to, in defending


Cromwell, affords a proof that Cromwell was indefen-
sible. A good cause does not need to be defended by
blackening the advocate on the other side. And I have
the satisfaction of knowing that some men of the highest
name in literature who have done me the honour to read
my history, agree with me in my estimate of the cha-
racter of Cromwell. At the same time I am by no means
unaware of the imperfections of my attempt to write the
history of those fifty months of the government of the
Commonwealth, the most heroic time of what one critic
of my book has truly called ' the most heroic age of
English history.' The very circumstance which at first
sight might appear to give facilities will be found by
those who honestly make the attempt to raise difficulties
in such an undertaking. The very abundance of new
materials is apt to give an appearance of discursiveness
and of want of continuousness in the narrative. I do not
say that a writer with Lord Macaulay's extraordinary
memory might not by substituting his own words for the
words of the minutes of the Council of State have made the
result look more like what is commonly called — ' History,'
that is, a continuous narrative that might have the
appearance of being the produce of inspiration, ' evolved
out of the writer's own consciousness.' But then such a
narrative would be open to the objection stated in a
. preceding page of being no more a history of England
during those fifty months than the history of Tom Thumb
or Jack the Giant-killer is a history of the Imman race.
This may be offered as at least some answer to the obser-
vations of a critic already referred to as justly designating
that time as ' the most heroic age of English history ' — a
critic who says of my work : ' He pleads the cause of


the Council of State \\\\\\ ample knowledge, complete
materials, and rather exaggerated energy, but with the
discursiveness of an advocacy which undertakes to reply
to all objectors and to fight all opponents. It is, indeed,
impossible to say that Mr. Bisset has written a history at
all. The history of the four years and a quarter can be
gathered from his book, but we look in vain for a con-
tinuous narrative.'

Sir Walter Scott says, in quoting a criticism of Captain
Dalgetty by an eminent critic : ' The author is so far for-
tunate in having incurred his censure, that it gives his
modesty a decent apology for quoting the praise, which it
would have ill-beiitted him to bring forward in an
unmingled state.' I may perhaps be permitted to say
with Sir Walter Scott that I am so far fortunate in having
incurred this second critic's censure, that it gives me a
decent apology for quoting the following words of his
criticism, Avhich describe with <jrcat force and truth the
distinctive character of my attempt, and furnish the best
answer to the critic whose ' command over facts ' may
well justify the words of David Hume before quoted
about the great difficulty of getting at truth. ' But,' con-
tinues this second critic, after noticing some of the imper-
fections of my work, ' there is one tiling Avhich we
definitely perceive, and that is the entirely new stand-
point from which the men and the events of that period
have been regarded. It is the stand-point of a member of
the Council of State of the Long Parliament, who is
equally opposed to Charles and to Cromwell, who feels
towards the latter the enmity of public disapproval and
personal affront, and who now vindicates the fair fame
of the government he belonged to against the injustice


of liis OAvn times and the neglect of history,' He also
says : ' The vindication of the Council of State from the
charire of cowardice on the invasion of the Scots is
complete; and the exposure of some of Mrs. Hutchinson's
mistakes — mistakes made in the partiality of a wife
writing history when her husband was an actor in it — is
quite successful.'

In regard to the first-mentioned critic's remark that
Mr. Forster has honourably confessed, in a more recent
publication, that his ' conclusions on that point ' [the cha-
racter of Cromwell] ' have undergone a change, and tliat
since perusing Mr. Carlyle's book he no longer enter-
tains the same opinion,' I can only say that I have very
carefully read Mr. Forster's ' more recent publication '
referred to ; and that, with the greatest respect for Mr.
Forster's most valuable contributions to historical truth,
more particularly his history of the Debates on the Grand
Piemonstrance, I have been unable to follow him in the
modification of his views of the character of Cromwell.
My opinion of Cromwell's character remains very much
what it was.

It comes, then, to this. Cromwell, like all other men,
great and small, is to be judged not by his words but by
liis deeds. ^ Cromwell, by his expulsion of the Long
Parliament, destroyed aU chance of good government in
England for at least two generations. He trampled
down while living — as his modern panegyrists seek to
insult when dead — the statesmen who had made England
' famous and terrible over the world ; ' and this critic

' Since these words were written I observe precisely the same idea stated
in almost the same words in the first leader in the Times of June 30,
1860, 'the essential canon of political criticism, that men must be judged
rather by their acts than by their wordd.'


says that llic 'collection and juxtaposition of his letters'
form 'a crucial test' — of what? — of his sincerity- — his
sincerity in what? in expelling the Long Parliament and
putting himself in its place. Parliaments and single
rulers are hut means to ends — those ends being the
prosperity and happiness of the governed. If Cromwell
did not advance those ends by his expulsion oi the Long
Parliament — and it is beyond a doubt that he did not
advance them — of what use is it to talk about ' crucial
tests' and 'juxtaposition of letters?' The only valid
argument which Cromwell had was that the Long Parlia-
ment w\as incapable of carrying on the government.
But the inferiority of Cromwell's government to that of
the Long Parliament, which he superseded, is proved
quite independently of the contemporary memoirs which
this critic is pleased to characterise as 'idle gossip,'
' tittle-tattle,' and ' rubbish.'

There is a remark of Mr. Porster's, in the publication
above referred to, Avhich ap[)ears to afford a tolerably
accurate measure of the value of M. Guizot's opinion
of the statesmen of the Commonwealth. Mr. Forster
says, ' Milton is M. Guizot's ideal of the highest of the
republican statesmen, grand but unpractical.' There are
many who, though they could not agree with Mr. Forster
in designating M. Guizot ' a great statesmen,' might be
surprised to see a man who knew as much as M. Guizot
did of practical politics describing Milton as a statesman
at all. Whether or not it may be necessary for a
statesman to have a philosophical mind, a logictil mind
he could hardly dispense with. The want of the logical
foculty in Milton is w^ell expressed by Hobbes, who says
of the books written by Salmasius and Milton, respecting



the execution of King Charles : — ' They are very good
Latin both, and hardly to be judged which is better, and
both very ill reasoning, hardly to be judged which is
worse ; like two declamations pro and con^ made for
exercise only in a rhetoric school by one and the same
man.' ^ It is sufficient to compare the state papers of the
Council of State of the Commonwealth, winch w^ere
certahily not Avritten by Milton, with such writings of
Milton's as that above described by Hobbes — for example,
the 'Instructions to Blake,' printed for the first time in
my history of the Commonwealth,''^ from the MS. minutes
of the council, which I believe to have been written by
Yane — with the political writings of Milton, to see the
enormous difference between a man of genius like Milton
whose genius was not political, and a man of genius hke
Yane whose genius was emphatically a genius for govern-
ment. There could not be a greater error than to con-
clude, as M. Guizot appears to have clone, from the
wildness of the theological speculations of Yane and some
others, that they were mere scholastic theoretical repub-
licans, at the best high-minded dreamers, and gifted with
every sense but common sense. In fact their theological
speculations, w^ild as they might be, were very little if at
all more wild than those of Cromwell himself, whom
M. Guizot will admit to have been sufficiently gifted with
common sense. M. Guizot's judgment of tliose men
might be correct if applied to ordinary times, when
violent religious enthusiasts are not found to possess the
quahties of mind necessary to make practical statesmen.
But that was not an ordinary but an exceptional time, a
time in which the persecutions of bigots and tyrants had

» Hobbes's Behemoth, pp. 269, 270: London, 1G82. ^ Vol. ii. pp. 81, 82.


added to the strongest practical intellects the quality of a
wild religious enthusiasm, producing a result which Lord
Macaulay has well described in his essay on ' The Pilgrim's
Progress.' ' Fanaticism, engendered by persecution,
spread rapidly through society. Even the strongest and
most commanding minds were not proof against it. Any
time might have produced George Fox and James Nay lor ;
but to one time alone belong the frantic delusions of such
a statesman as Vane, and the hysterical tears of such a
soldier as Cromwell.' The failure of the statesmen of the
Commonwealth, if their expulsion by armed force is to
be termed a failure, arose from no want of common
sense or any other sense in them, but from the want of
common sense on that occasion in the man who expelled
them ; for no one can examine closely the results to that
man himself and his family, without coming to the con-
clusion that that act of his, in which he deviated so widely
from the strong good sense which he had so often mani-
fested in his better days, entailed great and enduring evils
on himself, his family, and his country.

It is a httle surprising that M. Guizot should overlook
the fact that precisely the same experience which
naturally produced in himself such an aversion to re-
pubHcanism, had produced in the statesmen of the
Commonwealth a rooted aversion to monarchy, or, as they
termed it, 'kingship,' or 'the government of a single
person.' All the experience of those men's past lives had
presented to them kingship in the most repulsive
examples — in the person of Philip II., of Catharine de'
Medici, of Charles IX., of Henry III., of James I., and
of Charles I. They had seen in kingship vices hardening
into crimes, and cnehng in idiocy. It seems somewhat

Y 2


by the mark then, when such a government as the con-
stitutional Hmited monarchy estabhshed in England in
1GS8 was a thing unknown, to describe the English
Commonwealth as a Eepublic premature or untimely,
foreign to the national history and manners, introduced
and upheld by pride of spirit and the egotism of faction,
as a government detestable because full of falsehood and
violence. Were the governments of Philip II., of Charles
IX., or of Charles I., so exempt from falsehood and
violence ? "Were not falsehood and violence the very
first and most essential elements of their existence ? And
were not the Eoman Eepublic that was substituted for
the government of Tarquin, and the American Eepublic
that was substituted for the government of George III.,
foreign to the national history and manners? Yet the
Eoman Eepublic lasted for centuries, and the American
Eepublic has lasted nearly one centujy and bids fair to
last for centuries to come. And if Cromwell had per-
formed to the end his j^art as Washington performed his,
the English Commonwealth micjht have lasted and been
flourishing at this day. The cause of the difference has
been well expressed by M. Cuizot himself in his life of
Washington. M. Guizot, after quoting the words of
W'^ashington in his journal, expressive of his anxious
thoughts when he entered New York as the first
President of the United States — ' the movement of the
boats, the decking out of the ships, the music, the roar
of cannon, the shouts of the people resounding to the sky,
whilst I went along the quays, filled my soul with painful
instead of pleasing sentiments ; for I thought of the
scenes altogetlier different which perhaps would take place
some day, in spite of the efforts I should have made to do


good ; ' and the words of Cromwell on entering London
on his return from Ireland, in answer to a flatterer's
exclamation ' What a number of people come to welcome
you home ' — ' But how many more, do you think, would
flock together to see me hanged ? ' adds these words :
' Curious analogy and glorious difTerence between tlie
sentiments and the words of a great man corrupted and
of a great man virtuous ! '

In the two volumes of my history of the Common-
wealth I have endeavoured to show from original and
authentic sources the nature of that government wliich
lasted from the death of Charles the First, namely from
Febuary 1648-9 to April 1653, a period of four years
and three months, and wliich may correctly enough
receive the name which it assumed to itself of the
Commonwealth, to distinguish it from the monarchy
which preceded and from the military despotism which
followed it. The history of that mihtary despotism
established by Oliver Cromwell is not an inviting topic.
Neither is it an instructive one. So far are those who
sacrifice everyone to Cromwell from thereby promoting
historical truth or alTording political instruction, that
they seem to forget that while the period of the
Commonwealth exhibited nothing but what is extraordi-
nary, the period that succeeded the expulsion of the Long
Parliament exhibited little but what is commonplace.
This difierence arises from the difference between a
government of a Council of State composed of forty-one
members, several of whom possessed the talents of great
statesmen, and a government exercised by one bold, able,
and unscrupulous man.


A bold, able, and unscrupulous man ! These words
may seem cold and inadequate to express the qualities of
such a man, both to those who have been accustomed to

Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 25 of 40)