Friday, 30 September 2011
John Adamson, The Noble Revolt. The Overthrow of Charles I. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. 2007. Xxii + 742 pages.)
I have just received two responses to my blog review of John Adamson’s book the Noble Revolt and have now published both. Suffice to say I will in time reply to some their points. While putting Adamson's work in a wider context of new research on the Civil War. One question I will attempt to answer is does it break new ground?
From Chris Thompson
I have now had the opportunity to read Keith Livesey’s comments on his blog (“A Trumpet of Sedition”, 26 September, 2011) regarding John Adamson’s book in detail. Keith Livesey has an intense interest in the events of the 1640s and favours a Marxist interpretation as readers of his blog will know. I enjoy reading what he has to say although I am often sceptical about his claims. On this occasion, however, I fear that he is seriously mistaken.
Let me begin with the historiographical issues he raises. Nineteenth and early-twentieth century Whig historians argued that the English Civil Wars of the 1640s were the result of constitutional and religious struggles that paved the way for the establishment of a limited monarchy alongside Parliamentary supremacy, the rule of law, freedom of the press and religious toleration after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689. These were the Whigs’ themes from the time of Hallam and Macaulay to that of G.M.Trevelyan. This argument was rejected by Marxist historians and those historians influenced by Marx in the period before the Second World War and after it.
One thinks of figures like R.H.Tawney, Christopher Hill and others who believed that antecedent economic and social changes explained the origins and course of the ‘English Revolution’. Of course, there were historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was definitely not a Marxist, but who had his own socio-economic explanation to advance in the late-1940s and early-1950s.
The ‘storm over the gentry’ and contrasting claims about the fortunes of the peerage led to the great outpouring of theses and published works on the landed elites and on counties in the 1950s and 1960s. It is fair to say that this body of research left earlier arguments about the economic and social causes of the English Civil Wars or Revolution still undetermined. The controversy had run into the sand.
It was in this context that Conrad Russell observed in 1973 that social change explanations of this kind had failed. He left open the possibility that new explanations of this sort might be advanced. Russell himself and those historians advocating a new approach to the religious and political history of the early Stuart period were concerned with the causes of the breakdown in Stuart England before 1640: Theodore Rabb denominated them – misleadingly in my view – as ‘revisionists’. It was against the claims of Russell that historians like Richard Cust, Ann Hughes, Peter Lake and Tom Cosgwell, i.e. the post-revisionists, reacted in the 1980s. But there was a second group of historians, including John Morrill and Mark Kishlansky, engaged more or less simultaneously in re-evaluating the conflicts of the 1640s. These historians, whether or not they constituted one or two groups of ‘revisionists’, were certainly not mainly right-wing in their political persuasions. Russell himself, Ann Hughes, Richard Cust and John Morrill would have rejected such a description out of hand. In any case, by 1991 when Russell’s two books on the origins of the English Civil War and the fall of the British monarchies were published, revisionism and the reaction against it were over. New concerns over images, propaganda and the public sphere were coming to preoccupy seventeenth-century historians.
There was no attempt in the 1970s by the so-called revisionists to put forward explanations entailing “a rejection of both the Marxist and Whig views of English Civil War historiography” or “to pour scorn on Marxist theory”. Whig views were regarded as methodologically flawed and Marxist ones as anachronistic and irrelevant. They had ceased to matter. It is certainly wrong to claim that John Adamson’s “politics and historical attitudes were formulated during the Thatcher era.” John Adamson was a graduate of the University of Melbourne and arrived in Cambridge long after Mrs Thatcher had become Prime Minister. There is nothing in his book to suggest that he viewed the main actors in the period before the end of January, 1642 as reacting blindly to events or that he fails to explain or does not want to explain what provoked this revolt of the nobles and their allies. Equally clearly, he has nothing in its text or in the introduction to the volume of essays he edited in 2009, The English Civil War, to suggest any denigration of Oliver Cromwell or that he particularly admired King Charles I.
When Keith Livesey says that the book “contains significant omissions which include the significant role played by the Earl of Essex as Parliamentary commander after the outbreak of the civil war, the creation of the Royalist party, the significance of the New Model Army, the military defeat and elimination of the King, and the abolition of the House of Lords”, the chronological and logical fallacies involved in such claims are all too clear. None of these things had happened by the end of January, 1642 and thus fell outside the scope of John Adamson’s book. They will, no doubt, be dealt with in his later volumes.
Take, for example, the proposition advanced in his review that “Adamson does not touch upon any of the controversies over the war” and the contention four paragraphs later that he “accused some historians of relying too much on large abstract forces and opposed a downplaying of the role of the individual. He said”, so Keith Livesey argues, “he did not agree that long term views got us anywhere or that it was a bourgeois revolution. He [Adamson] felt that this “economic determinist” viewpoint did not explain too much.”
The two claims are contradictory. But, if one reads Adamson’s book carefully, it is possible to see that he did engage with earlier historians’ interpretations – e.g. throughout the footnotes and in his epilogue (Pages 513-516) and that the bulk of his introduction to the 2009 volume of essays considers historiographical issues as a prelude to the work of his contributors. Nowhere in the book is there any comment to link the decline of Marxist influence on Civil War historiography with the fall of the Berlin Wall or to explain the English Revolution as a result of Charles I’s inexperience and vanity. Furthermore, no one can massage the egos of dead aristocrats.
In fact, almost all of Keith Livesey’s claims are either unfounded or untenable. I understand why, as a Marxist, he regrets its passing as an influence on the study of the events of the 1640s and 1650s since the early-1970s and the great days of Christopher Hill. That was probably inevitable as one generation of historians reacts against the claims of the preceding one. I happen to think that this is a good, positive development which has led to some profoundly important new lines of enquiry. John Adamson’s work has contributed very largely to this process and will, I expect, continue to do so into the future. His views on politics, whatever they may be, are irrelevant to the importance of his research just as they are to the work of historians of the left. We are all engaged in a continuing debate about these issues, a debate to which, alas, this review has contributed very little.
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
mercuriuspoliticus commented on The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I by John Adamson 576 pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
This was a thought-provoking post but I'm not sure I would agree with all of what you say about Adamson's work here. (You will probably have guessed that having read my own review of the book!). I think it's a bit unfair to say it's light on analysis: the sustained way in which Adamson unpicks the factional manoeuvrings behind the Junto, and particularly the complicated Anglo-Scottish-Irish connections, are to my mind highly analytical and considered.
And he does devote lots of space, too, to understanding why a certain section of peers and MPs were so hostile to Charles I's policies during the Personal Rule. he does not arrive at a class-based explanation of this group's actions, but on the evidence I think he's right to locate their opposition in political and religious ideologies: or to put it another way, to prioritise superstructure rather than base.
Perhaps it's fairer to say that Adamson's book does not really engage with those below the level of the political class. There are moments when he takes a rather monolithic view of politicians controlling the London crowd: it was probably more complicated than this, and while some protests in 1641 were I'm sure engineered or at least tacitly supported by the Junto grandees, many more will have owed their origins to the indepenent political agency of those participating in them. But to carry out a sustained analysis of the vertical links between politicians and "people" would be a very different work of history, and add hundreds of pages to what is already a monster of a book.
And the book does stop in January 1642, which means that its chronological scope can't really cover some of the things you mention in your review. Within these limits I think it is absolutely reasonable for Adamson to argue that the outbreak of the war - in the sense of Charles and Parliament coming to blows - is driven by the sustained efforts of the Junto to achieve a quasi-republican settlement. Yes of course when it comes to recruiting armies, to choosing sides etc this doesn't look at the motivations of working people, but in terms of Adamson's focus - what was going on in London/Edinburgh/Dublin politics that caused the rift between King and Parliament - the book, for me, breaks new ground.
I'm sure you're right that Adamson has some sympathies with Charles I (and Strafford, too) - read his chapter in Niall Ferguson's "Virtual History" for a rollicking attempt to imagine the ancien regime in England continuing into the late eighteenth century had Charles only been able to defeat the Scots. But I'm not sure you can argue that he denigrates Cromwell because of his politics. See for example his chapter in John Morrill's "Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Revolution", in which he conducts a close and considered analysis of Cromwell's attitudes to Parliament and his behaviour in the Long Parliament.
Monday, 26 September 2011
To begin with this review of John Adamson’s Nobel Revolt is not an attack on the merits of Adamson as a historian. Adamson is a competent historian and his books are usually well written and extensively researched. The Noble Revolt has been described as "a work of great style and imagination as well as scholarship... As with a great 19th century novel, the story and the characters will become your friends for life."
Adamson’s books on the English Civil war are part of what has become the ‘post revisionist’ school of history writing. The main characteristic of this school of thought is a rejection of both the Marxist and Whig views English Civil War historiography. From the beginning of his career Adamson sought to distance himself from any form of socio-economic explanations which have largely been championed by ‘Marxist’ historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning
Before the Post Revisionist era there consisted a group of historians who were for want of a better term simply “revisionists.” From the late seventies onwards a group of mainly but not all right wing historians sought to pour scorn on Marxist theory based largely on socio-economic explanation of historical events. The result of this has been a chaotic mix of differing theories with Adamson’s being one of them. Adamson elaborated his thesis when he edited the recent book The English Civil War: Conflict and Contexts 2009. Again no space could be found for socio or economic explanations of the war.
The Noble Revolt is a work that took Adamson nearly 15 years to research and write. The book is a formidable read with nearly two hundred pages of notes. The main theoretical premise of the book is to put forward a view of the Civil war as basically a coup d’état by a group of nobles or aristocrats who no longer supported the King.
According to Diane Purkiss these nobles were “driven by their code of honour, they acted to protect themselves and the nation. Names such as Saye, Bedford, Essex and Warwick move from the side-lines to occupy centre stage, as do their counterparts among Scottish peers. It was they and not the rude masses who plucked a king from his throne. Oliver Cromwell, for Adamson, was merely one of their lesser lackeys”. The work is light on analysis. It must be said that Adamson’s theory is not that original and is mainly a rehash of some previous revisionist historians.
It is also noticeable in the majority of Adamson’s work “ordinary people” rarely get a look in which is less to do with his historical proclivities and more to do with the right wing nature of his politics. Adamson’s politics and historical attitudes were formulated during the Thatcher era. He belongs to a generation of historians that include Niall Fergusson whose main task seems to be working towards removing any trace of Marxist or Whig influence from current history writing.
Robert Boynton describes the early days of this group in an article “Ferguson calls this his "punk Tory" period, a phase when he and Sullivan listened to the Sex Pistols and vied to see who could most effectively rankle the left-liberal majority. He treasures an invitation he received from friends at Balliol in the early eighties, to a cocktail party to celebrate the deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. The invitations were illustrated with champagne bottles emitting mushroom clouds. The conservative Cambridge historian John Adamson remembers dining with Ferguson the night Thatcher resigned. "We both sensed it was the end of an era," Adamson said.
One aspect of the Noble Revolt you feel that despite Adamson writing about a palace coup you get a strong feeling that he has a lot of sympathy for Charles 1st. You can see this in his book title the Noble Revolt (notice this is not a revolution from below but a revolt from above) The reader can judge for themselves when Adamson writes "From the cabin at the stern of the barge, Charles caught a glimpse of the gilded weather-vanes of Whitehall Palace before the boat turned westwards, past the Abbey, and under the great east window of St Stephen’s Chapel – the Commons’ chamber, and the scene of his most recent political debacle. It would be seven years before Charles saw his palace again”.
Adamson also seems the revel in his idea that the main players in the revolution were largely reacting somewhat blindly to events. One reviewer of Adamson’s book said “Unlike hind sighted historians, they stumbled forward, seeking peace if possible and war if necessary. As Oliver Cromwell, in 1640 an obscure farmer on the fringes of Warwick's circle, once said, 'no one travels so high as he who knows not where he is going'.
As regards the footnotes it is some sort of an overkill to publish some many. One reason maybe because previously in his career Adamson was attacked by historians such as Mark Kishlansky who alleged that Adamson was “deliberately abusing and misreading sources”. This doubtless explains why Adamson’s book comes with so many footnotes. What began as a disagreement between two historians soon became a major historical debate
Both sides of the debate took their gripes to the pages of academic journals. Big name historians such as Conrad Russell, Lawrence Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper took one side or the other without really resolving the issue.
Outside of the academic community these debates which occur frequently might seem like storms in tea cups but in reality particularly when concerning the discussion over the civil war they are expressions of very deep seated divisions over cause and effect. As Lawrence Stone described the history of the 17th century as 'a battleground which has been heavily fought over...beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way.”
The book is clearly written for a very small academic community and not for a general readership. While not agreeing with Adamson premise it was true to certain extent that there was a revolt amongst the nobility but Adamson fails to or does not want to explain what provoked this revolt and whether there was the socio economic or class basis to it. Purkiss is correct to say that “he has impressively uncovered a neglected aspect of the mentalite of the age. It does not follow that the juntos were the cause of the war or that the war was what they thought it was”.
Another criticism I have of the book is that it tends to overestimate this particular group. Adamson clearly explains the political motivation for this group but this is to the detriment of far more important social layers. Again nothing is said of the ordinary people who made up the main content of the armies. What provoked them to die for a cause in their hundreds of thousands? More importantly his denigration of leading figures such as Oliver Cromwell is perhaps more tied up with Adamson politics than his history. Certainly Cromwell is hardly flavour of the month of leading sections of the current ruling elite of whom Adamson no doubt associates himself with now and again.
The book is beautifully illustrated with full colour photos, helpful maps and plans. You get the feeling that a lot of money was spent on this book. Which is strange as it appeals to such a small audience.
The chronological dates of the book are May 1640 and January 10, 1642 when the King departed London. Not only the period covered by the book but also the layer that Adamson studies composed a very small part of the English ruling elite in the early 1640s. Not that I believe this layer does not deserve systematic coverage but if it is done so without placing them in the overall context of the war then it becomes a matter of ego massaging by the historian. Adamson does mention the intellectual climate of the time but a single paragraph of a 742 page book is hardly objective.
The historian R C Richardson has called the book title and subtitle” both highly misleading. The events documented in this book did not lead to the overthrow of Charles I. As Adamson himself now concedes, what happened in the 1640s "was no mere barons' war" and the "baronial context" was one of several that coalesced at the time. "Nor was it a revolt of the nobility, or even the major part of the nobility, acting alone".
A better book would have recognised that these two years covered by Adamson were extremely crucial not only because of the rebellion by a minority of the Nobility as Adamson suggest but they set the scene for the future course of the war. The tendency amongst post revisionist historians to concentrate on limited political aspects covering only the ruling elite and a tiny majority for that matter is detrimental to a fuller and more rounded understanding of the war.
The book also contains significant omissions which include the significant role played by the Earl of Essex as Parliamentary commander after the outbreak of civil war, the creation of the Royalist party, the significance of the New Model Army, the military defeat and eventual elimination of the King, and the abolition of the House of Lords.
Another big omission is the fact that Adamson does not touch upon any of the controversies over the war. According to one blog review by Gavin Robinson “There is no coverage of other historians from a wide range of theoretical or argumentative backgrounds. This extends through the book’s epilogue, where Adamson is keen to debunk Whigs and revisionists alike by finding a third way on explaining the origins of the war – but can coverage of only 1640-1642 cover enough of the origins of the war to adequately explain them? I don’t believe it can”
Adamson’s theory tends to try and rule out the revolutionary nature of the civil war. His Noble Revolt essentially put forwards a consistent view used by numerous right wing historians, commentators and one prime minister that Britain does not do violent revolutions Adamson says “Unlike our Continental neighbours, British revolutions have tended to be relatively polite and orderly affairs. Not for us the tumbrels and tanks in the streets, the giddy cycles of massacre”.
According to Ann Talbot “The sense that in Britain things were done differently and without continental excess is not entirely new. Burke had expressed it in his Reflections on the French Revolution, but there were plenty of voices to gainsay him and the social disturbances in the years of economic upheaval that followed the Napoleonic wars were a testimony to the contrary. Luddism, anti-corn law agitation, the anti-poor law movement, strikes and most of all Chartism demonstrated that Britain was not an island of social peace. Nonetheless the Whig interpretation of history had deep roots in the consciousness of the British political class. The visitor to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire can still see in the great entrance hall a fireplace inscribed with the legend “1688 The year of our liberty.” It refers to the “Glorious Revolution” when James II quit his throne and his kingdom overnight and William of Orange was installed as king. This was the kind of palace revolution that the British ruling class increasingly preferred to look back on rather than the revolution in the 1640s when they had executed the king, conveniently overlooking the fact that James would not have run if he had not remembered the fate of his father—Charles I”.
He accused some historians of relying too much on large abstract forces and opposed a downplaying the role of the individual. He said he did not agree that long term views got us anywhere or that it was a bourgeois revolution. He felt that this “economic determinist” viewpoint did not explain too much.
Adamson echoes the prevailing academic orthodoxy that there was no bourgeois revolution largely because he felt there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle.
According to a number of historians and I would include Adamson in them even Cromwell, it can be argued could be better understood as a representative of the declining gentry rather than the rising bourgeois. Adamson believes that Cromwell never intended a revolution and come to think of it neither did those around him but according to Ann Talbot who indirectly countered Adamson’s point by saying “wished merely to restore what they believed to be the ancient constitution of the kingdom. The whole unpleasant episode could have been avoided if only Charles II had been a little wiser”.
Adamson linked this distancing away from the Marxist viewpoint on the civil war with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He somewhat smugly said that no one had anticipated the collapse of the wall and communism, which is not true. He went on to say that there has been in the past too much emphasis on social classes in the civil war but in reality the war was much more about individual allegiances and decisions.
Essentially according to Adamson the war was caused by Charles the 1st and his inexperience and vanity. There is no doubting Adamson’s work rate or ability to carry out prodigious research his current book’s weight and I don’t mean academic but physical is testimony to that. But this is not alone enough to give a multi rather than singular dimension to understanding the complexity and magnitude of the Civil war.
Is the book as the blogger Mercurius Politicus suggests is a “major contribution to the debate on the origins of the English Civil War”. I do not think it is. Is it worth reading, yes but try and read it quickly otherwise you may lament spending some much time on it.
1. Not the main act but a prelude to drama 20 July 2007 Roger Richardson-Times Higher Education
2. "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill by Ann Talbot 25 March 2003-www.wsws.org
3. How Charles I lost his head 03 May 2007 Malcolm Gaskill reviews The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I by John Adamson. Sources
4. John Adamson is the author of The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow Of Charles I (Orion,
5. Leon Trotsky's Writings on Britain Ch 2 Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism
6. The Nobel Revolt Review by Diane Purkiss Published: June 1 2007 Diane Purkiss is author of”The English Civil War: A People’s History” (HarperCollins
7. The English Context of the British Civil Wars. By John Adamson Published in History Today Volume: 48 Issue: 11
8. From Thinking the Unthinkable: A profile of Niall Ferguson Robert Boynton
9. Class & Cabal Tom Hazledine New Left Review.
10. The War of the Realms: The English Civil War: Noble Revolt John Adamson (To be published in 2013)
Tuesday, 20 September 2011
A Short Review of Regicide and Republic-England 1603 -1660 Graham E Seel Cambridge Perspectives in History 2001.
This short book is a decent account of a very complex historical event. The book is part of Cambridge Perspectives in History and is aimed at AS and A Level history students. The author Graham E Seel covers the period from 1603 to 1660.
Seel explains well the complex religious and political developments such as the remarkable execution of Charles I, civil war and the introduction of a republican form of government.
The book is well laid out and is beautifully illustrated with generous and interesting pictures.
The book was published in 2001 and this is reflected in the large number of quotes from revisionist and post revisionist historians.
This comes as no surprise as the revisionists tend to dominate this particular historical field at the moment. The book does contain a chapter on economic questions which again is a rarity but is to be welcomed anyway.
The book is very light on historiography but does at least give a very basic run down of the various schools of thought on the civil war. Seel does issue a valuable piece of advice in that it is important for any new student of the subject to study the historian before you study the history.
Tuesday, 6 September 2011
In his book Richard Baxter and Puritan Politics Richard Schlatter makes the point that figures like Baxter have been significantly overlooked by historians of both left and right persuasions. Schlatter is correct when saying that the English Civil War was one of a half dozen creative periods of world history. While figures such as Baxter have faded into the background the Civil War still provokes great interest. The purpose of this short article is to go some way to redress this imbalance.
Richard Baxter was born in 1615 in the village of Rowton, Shropshire. Baxter described his father as “a mean Freeholder”. The Baxter’s early family life was hard and “entangled by debts”. Although much of this was brought on by a family trait of addiction to gambling .
Despite this wild beginning the family soon began to adopt the Puritan lifestyle and philosophical outlook. Baxter later acknowledged his fathers as the “Instrument of my first Convictions, and Approbation of a Holy Life’. Baxter was in many ways a representative of the archetypal lower middle class layer that saw Puritanism as both a moral and philosophical outlook. His father also bred into his son that hostility to Puritanism stems from “mere Malice’ and that ‘Godly People were the best’.
Baxter's own ‘vehement desires’ had been to proceed from school to university to achieve ‘Academick Glory’, and throughout his life he regretted his lack of a university education and pointed to his ‘wanting Academical Honours’ as a mark of his insufficiency as a minister.
Despite his lowly academic status how does one account for the fact that Baxter “became one of the most learned of seventeenth-century divines.” Baxter himself probably puts this down to his devotion to God. But while not downplaying the fact that Baxter was undoubtedly a gifted speaker and writer Baxter was also moved by the massive social, political and religious upheavals brought about by the English revolution.
While much of Baxter’s thought was cloaked in religious trappings his political and philosophical writings should be studied today because they play an important part in our understanding of the events of the 17th century English revolution.
Baxter even early on in his life engendered dislike and hatred from many sides of the class struggle. One example came in 1642 when a churchwarden tried to impose a parliamentary order for the demolition of any outstanding images of the persons of the Trinity or of the Virgin Mary. Baxter was held by many accountable for this order and was targeted by ‘a Crew of the drunken riotous Party of the Town’. Baxter clearly feared for his life at this time. The tensions and hostilities surrounding the outbreak of civil war further heightened feelings: ‘a violent Country Gentleman’ passing Baxter in the street ‘stopt and said, There goeth a Traitor’.
Baxter politically was on the right wing of the Presbyterians. He never gave his full backing to Cromwell and never really adhered to his ideas about the war and later the Commonwealth. One thing is also certain is that he was hostile to the left wing independents such as Hugh Peters. He reserved his anger for “sectaries” such as Thomas Rainborow. As for the Levellers and Diggers he saw them as nothing more than “tools of Anabaptists’, in fact any one who sought to enfranchise a wider selection of the population were labelled Anabaptists.
Baxter was a prodigious writer turning out more than 130 books (the exact figure depends upon how works published in a variety of forms are counted), several of them folios over 1 million words in length.
The civil war produced an outpouring of writing that had never been seen previously in England and would match any contemporary event. According to Christopher Hill “People especially Puritans began to utilise the press more often than not secretly to forward their thoughts and views on the nature of religion politics and philosophy. It has been said with his volume of work Baxter “was the first author of a string of best-sellers in British literary history”. The political theorist, Hobbes, describes how the Presbyterian merchant class of the city of London was the first centre of sedition, trying to build a state governed like the republics of Holland and Venice, by merchants for their own interests. (The comparison with the bourgeois republics is constantly recurring in Parliamentarian writings.) Mrs. Hutchinson, the wife of one of Cromwell’s colonels, said all were described as Puritans who “crossed the views of the needy courtiers, the encroaching priests, the thievish projectors, the lewd nobility and gentry . . . whoever could endure a sermon, modest habit or conversation, or anything good.”
Baxter claimed no credit for his letter writing. Again he put his thoughts down to a gift from God. He was however a compulsive letter writer. His 1200 letters which were sent to over 350 people. This amount of letter writing bears testimony to not only Baxter’s own love of life but give us a deeper insight into the culture and politics during the civil war.
According to one writer “The largest single group among Baxter's correspondents consists of some seventy men who became nonconformist ministers at the Restoration, but the interest of the letters is not confined to the history of nonconformity, ecclesiastical affairs, or theological controversy. Baxter was an acute enquirer into matters arcane and mundane, inveterately interested in both public affairs and individuals' experience, encyclopaedically industrious in establishing the grounds for the opinions which, for over half a century, he freely discussed in letters with persons of every walk of life, from peers, the gentry, and members of the professions, to merchants, apprentices, farmers, and seamen.
The result is not merely a rich historical archive: the range of this correspondence, the vitality of its engagement with a great variety of topics, the immediacy of its expression, and the unpredictability’s of its mood and tone make this collection a record of felt experience unique among early epistolary archives”.
Would it be correct to say that Baxter’s writing represented a definite strand within Puritan philosophy?. No not really, In most doctrinal disputes he sought a middle position. Another writer suggested “that his affinities with the Cambridge Platonists have placed Baxter as a precursor for the rationalism which was to lead to John Locke and the deists”.
While people took sides in the war for different reasons Baxter would have preferred to remain neutral and it was touch and go which side he would support as he felt comfortable with both.
Baxter chose the parliamentary side because he felt that “for the debauched rabble through the land emboldened by his (the kings) gentry, and seconded by the common soldiers of his army, took all that were called Puritans for their enemies”. Baxter blamed the King for the war and was disturbed by the fact that it could in his words disturb the rabble into riot.
Some of his writings as regards the poor have the whiff of fascism about it. He did not believe that men “from the Dung-cart to make us laws, and from the Ale-house and the May-pole to dispose of our religion, lives, and estates. When a pack of the rabble are got together, the multitude of the needy and the dissolute prodigals if they were ungoverned, would tear out the throats of the more wealthy and industrious…. And turn all into a constant war”. It would be easy to dismiss Baxter’s writing as an exception but in reality they expressed a real fear amongst the propertied elite that the revolution would lead to a wider enfranchisement and a rebellion against property.
If you strip away all the religious trappings Baxter’s writings are imbued with this hatred of the masses. His Holy Commonwealth which is probably his most famous book is a manifesto against wider democracy except for the chosen few namely people like him. Baxter‘s hostility to the working masses was expressed most vehemently in his opposition to the Leveller’s. In fact a study of people like Baxter shows eloquently the social and political forces that were reigned against the Levellers.
During his time in the New Model army as an army Chaplin he took on the Levellers in debate. He accused the Levellers of publishing large numbers of wild pamphlets as “changeable as the moon “and advocating “a heretical democracy”.Despite Baxter’s hostility to the Levellers Baxter’s books themselves were burnt and he was labelled a subversive.
While some writers have compared Baxter’s writings to that of Hobbes and Harrington according to Schlatter Baxter’s opposition to Hobbes and Harrington were that they believed in a secular state but Baxter did not. Baxter followed the writings of Hobbes and Harrington very closely ,Baxter declares: "I must begin at the bottom and touch these Praecognita which the politicians doth presuppose because I have to do with some that will deny as much, as shame will suffer them to deny." Harrington, Hobbes and to a lesser extent Baxter writings expressed the sentiment that at the heart of the civil war was the unresolved nature of democracy. Like Baxter perhaps the majority of puritans including the leadership of the revolution were extremely hostile to a wider enfranchisement of the population.
Baxter was heavily critical of Hobbes whose “mistake” according to one writer “was that in his doctrine of "absolute impious Monarchy' he gives priority to man by making sovereign the will of man rather than the will of God. Baxter deplored any attempt to draw criteria for right and wrong from man's As for Harrington; his great fallacy consisted in denying God's sovereignty by making "God the Proposer, and the people the Resolvers or Confirmers of all their laws." If his [Harrington's] doctrine be true, the Law of nature is no Law, till men consent to it. At least where the Major Vote can carry it, Atheism, Idolatry, Murder, Theft, Whoredome, etc., are no sins against God. Yea no man sinneth against God but he that consenteth to his Laws.
The people have greater authority or Government than Gods in Baxter's view, such conceptions of politics and its practice as those of Hobbes and Harrington is suited to atheists and heathen”.
While Baxter was critical of both Hobbes and Harrington much of his philosophical writings bore similarities to them both. Politically speaking he took a moderate position constantly seeking not to alienate the political establishment of his day of which he did not succeed.
According to Geoffrey Nuttall who summarized Baxter's political position by pointing to the fact that "in politics as well as ecclesiastical position as continually taking a 'moderate' position which from both sides would bring him charges of betrayal or insincerity."
In many ways Baxter work was physical proof that despite recent revisionist historian’s denial that the Civil war was very much fought along class lines. As Baxter himself put it at the time: “A very great part of the knights and gentlemen of England . . . adhered to the King . . . And most of the tenants of these gentlemen, and also most of the poorest of the people, whom the others call the rabble, did follow the gentry and were for the King. On the Parliament’s side were (besides themselves) the smaller part (as some thought) of the gentry in most of the counties, and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and the middle sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on clothing and such manufactures…Freeholders and tradesmen are the strength of religion and civility in the land; and gentlemen and beggars and servile tenants are the strength of iniquity”.
How to understand Baxter, Schlatter offers some advice “students of Baxter must look backwards, for he stands near the end of a tradition which, although someone is always trying to revive it as a weapon in the never ending war on liberty and democracy has been long been dead. To understand Baxter’s politics we must reflect on that long political tradition which achieved its first and most magnificent expression in the City of God, which flourished in the Middle Ages and reformation, and died in the Age of Reason”.
1. Richard Baxter and Puritan Politics Richard Schlatter Rutgers University.2. N. H. Keeble Oxford National Biography 3. Politics and Theology in the Thought of Richard Baxter- Walter B Douglas.Andrews University 4. IIIM Magazine, Volume 2, Number 27, July 3 to July 9, 2000 5 The Work and Thought of Richard Baxter by Lynell Friesen 6. The English Revolution 1640 Christopher Hill