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Is the character of Oliver Cromwell worthy of our
OPENER. — Sir, I propose the question which you have just read to us, because I am of opinion that the character of Oliver Cromwell is not yet fully understood by his countrymen; and because I am anxious to dispel, if possible, in my small sphere, the clouds of error which stand between our judgment and the truth.
I am firmly of opinion, Sir, that Oliver Cromwell was one of the greatest and best men that England, or the world, has ever produced; and I feel a strong confidence and belief that before we rise from this debate, we shall all be of one mind upon the subject.
As a Man, as a Leader, and as a Ruler, I think him equally entitled to our praise and admiration.
If I survey him as a Man, I find him irreproachable in every walk of life. As a son he was dutiful; as a husband he was true and affectionate; as a father he was wise, vigilant, and
kind. His personal character was pure beyond the shadow of suspicion; and his social character was equally above the reach of blame. He was just and honourable to all men : he infringed no lawful rights, and exacted no undue cbediences.
If I further regard him as a Leader, I find in him every thing to admire, and nothing to condemn.
He was brave, far-seeing, quick in insight, immediate in action, bold and cautious, prudent and daring. He was just to those under his command, indulgent towards the meritorious, stern and inexorable towards the refractory. He was economical of the lives of his men, soldierlike in his demeanour, and earnest in the cause for which he fought. It would be difficult, I think, to find a general so endowed by nature with the capacity to lead ; the strongest possible proof of which is found in the fact that he was never defeated, although opposed by the most unheard-of difficulties.
As a Ruler, he is perhaps more remarkable still. For sagacity, strong practical wisdom, promptness, firmness, fearlessness, and unsullied justice, I do not know his equal in history. I can safely challenge proof of one single act of injustice per petrated during his Protectorate.
There is, however, a higher standard still by which he must be tried : and here will lie our struggle, I suppose, in this debate : I mean the
standard of that morality which a man owes to truth and to heaven: the morality which tries a man, not by his actions and qualities, but by his motives and by his heart. It is by this means alone that we can test and gauge the true character of Cromwell : that we can say whether he was a great bad man, or a man of pure character and honest heart. It has been the fashion, for these two centuries past, to say — indeed we are told in our school histories—that Cromwell was “ an ambitious hypocrite,” a “rebel,” a “ usurper," and the like: but men have at length begun to doubt all this, and to inquire, Is it so, or not?
It is with the view of clearing up this point, if possible, that I propose this question for debate. I do not mean to anticipate the charges against Cromwell, for they will doubtless be made by others. I simply say to those who are to follow me, that I hope they will look at this great question with earnest and honest minds; that I trust they will not judge Cromwell by childish morality; and that when they try his conduct they will consider the circumstances in which he was placed
SECOND SPEAKER. — Sir, as I am one of those who refuse admiration to the character of Cromwell, I lose no time in presenting my remarks.
I at once admit Cromwell's great qualities ;
denial of them would, indeed, be ridiculous. He could never have governed England as he did, had he not been possessed of a great and masterly niind.
But we have been truly told that we must judge Cromwell, not by his qualities, but by his motives. I mean to do so, Sir; and as we can only test a man's motives by his acts, it is by Cromwell's recorded deeds that I shall try him.
What are Cromwell's deeds, then? Unhappily we can make no mistake in recounting them. He excited treason against his Sovereign : helped to bring that Sovereign to an ignominious death : and usurped the seat of the dethroned monarch. Here we see rebellion, murder, and foul ambition: for surely we can safely predicate these motives from these deeds. Now, as I said before, there can be no fear of mistake about these facts: they stand black and frowning against him. He killed his king, and he usurped his throne: if this be worthy of admiration, I am strangely in error.
He must be wrong. Kings are inviolable, and should never, under any circumstances, be destroyed. Usurpation is always a crime, and can by no sophism be defended. And rebellion is always a wickedness, for we are, by Scripture, expressly commanded to submit to, and not resist, the civil ruler.
Into the charge of hypocrisy I enter not.
Cromwell may have been sincere, but sincerity does not justify crime. The motive must be good, before sincerity can be a virtue. Besides, the charges I have advanced are enough: and now I leave the debate to those who are more qualified to sustain its weight.
THIRD SPEAKER. — The last speaker has attributed three crimes to Cromwell: treason, murder, and guilty ambition: I wish to say a few words about the first.
We are told that Cromwell excited treason against the King. What is treason? Improper resistance to lawful power. But in the case before us, the power was not lawful, and therefore the resistance was not improper.
It is admitted, for it cannot be denied, that Charles the First was acting illegally when the rebellion first broke out. He was acting without a parliament, levying unconstitutional taxes, and exercising an arbitrary power quite inconsistent with the laws of the land. It was this, in fact, and this only, that caused the rebellion. Had the monarch been constitutional, the people would have been obedient.
The King, then, placed himself beyond the law, and his defenders cannot in justice complain when those who suffered from the King's unlawfulness became unlawful too.