Emergence Of Constitutional Governments

The Strife Of States And Kings

Edited By: Robert Guisepi

  

 

     A notable development during the war was the emergence of constitutional

governments in the Netherlands and England. The prolonged conflict affected

the two countries in different ways. Holland prospered from developing trade

and colonies, made possible by the weakening of Spain. Because other states

were tied down in continental wars, England was free to experiment with its

political structure. In both countries, rapidly developing commerce and rising

middle classes encouraged a direct transition from feudalism to constitutional

government, without a prolonged intermediate stage of absolute monarchy.

 

The Dutch Republic

 

     The Thirty Years' War brought official independence to the Dutch Republic

but its actual independence had long since been an established fact. Defeat of

the Spanish Armada had bought the Dutch time in which to accumulate resources,

create an efficient army, and drive out the Spaniards. After Spanish troops

had sacked and then effectively blockaded Antwerp, most industry and banking

moved north to Amsterdam, which became the leading port and financial center

for northern Europe. The Dutch meanwhile developed a peculiar federal

government, combining urban and feudal councils to limit executive power. The

system was identified, in the Dutch independence declaration of 1581, with the

abstract ideal of popular sovereignty, but this aristocratic polity of

burghers and nobles only baguely resembed modern democracy. The Dutch system

was, however, the first successful major challenge to absolute monarchy in

western Europe, and it did provide a traditional base for many later

democratic institutions.

 

     Perhaps the most striking feature of the Dutch system was its internal

pluralism. The Republic was literally a union of sovereign states, each

empowered to veto any act of the States General (federal assembly).

Theoretically, the stadtholder, as official chief of state, was merely a

military commander, dependent upon the assembly for men and supplies. The

provinces made public decisions in their own assemblies, which represented the

nobles and the cities in varying proportions. Within the cities, policies were

made by councils, whose members sat by inherited rights and usually

represented the wealthy merchant-bankers. Local government, however, was a

practical partnership between rich burghers and less affluent craftsmen. The

latter held minor administrative posts and maintained peace through their

service in the militias.

 

     Concentration of power in any one office or individual was limited by

this interaction of classes. Their differences were accented by their separate

interests and by their indirect exercise of power, outside of government and

often outside of the law itself. Wealthy urban merchants dominated the town

councils, but their power was balanced against that of the nobles in the

provincial assemblies. The merchants were also checked by differences within

their own class and by dependence upon the urban militias. All three classes

needed each other to maintain industry and commerce, upon which their

prosperity depended. Because no one of the three major blocs could achieve

absolute control, all regulations were lax, and individuals enjoyed more

freedom than citizens anywhere else in Europe.

 

     The internal Dutch power balance shifted during the early seventeenth

century. Republicans, representing the great urban merchants, favored

religious toleration, limited central authority, and peace. The monarchists,

representing a majority of the urban lower classes, the nobles, and the House

of Orange, wanted a Calvinist state church, a strong stadtholder, a large

army, and an aggressive foreign policy against the Habsburgs. Until 1619, the

republicans held power, but their leader, John Oldenbarnveldt (1547-1619), was

ultimately overthrown and executed after a royalist uprising. Between 1619 and

the Peace of Westphalia, the country was ruled by domineering stadtholders,

who conducted the war against Spain and acquired a status similar to that of

European kings.

 

     At the end of the war the Dutch Republic enjoyed prosperity and power far

beyond its natural potential. During the interval between the collapse of

Spain and the maturation of England and France the Dutch Republic enjoyed

naval, commerical, and colonial supremacy. The Dutch predominance, of course,

could only be transitory. The country was so small and so divided that it

could not afford open competition with France in Europe or with England

overseas. But even as a secondary power, which it was destined to become after

1650, it remained economically progressive, culturally advanced, and a pioneer

in developing constitutional government.

 

The English Constitutional Crisis

 

     While the Dutch prospered and mainland Europe experienced near-anarchy in

the Thirty Years' War, England faced its most dangerous internal crisis. Peace

with Spain in 1604 left a debt of 100,000 and the end of privateering, which

had netted handsome profits for many London financiers. The English, like the

Dutch earlier, also resented a foreign king, his "popish" religion, and his

taxes. Despite these similarities, the English struggle against absolutism

brought different results. Because it came later and was better protected, it

was more extreme, more secular, and more precise than the Dutch had been.

Consequently, the English experience became the main historical precedent for

western constitutional government.

 

     Contention began shortly after James I (1603-1625) succeeded to the

English throne. He was the son of Mary Stuart, a cousin of Elizabeth, and king

of Scotland, where he had reigned as James VI since 1567. Understandably, he

was a committed proponent of absolute monarchy, having written a book

expounding his views on the subject.

 

     James faced an English Parliament that had recently become aggressive in

its demands for church reform, lower taxes, and security for its members. Most

elected members were from the landed gentry, who also controlled local

government. They naturally opposed a foreign king and the courtiers who served

him. Therefore, a wide gap soon opened between the "country party" and those

inside the royal circle.

 

     The resulting political struggle was fought mainly in Parliament. James

dismissed his first Parliament in 1611. The second sat for only two months in

1614. James then ruled by decree, without Parliament, until 1621, when he

quickly ended another session by personally attending the House of Commons and

angrily rejecting its proposals against his policies.

 

     James' son, Charles I (1625-1649), fared even worse. After enduring many

stormy debates with Parliament, he accepted the famous "Petition of Right" in

1628. Theoretically, this document affirmed ancient English rights by securing

parliamentary approval of taxes, abolishing arbitrary imprisonment, ending the

quartering of soldiers on citizens, and prohibiting martial law in peacetime.

But Charles' cooperation was only temporary. From 1629 to 1640, he ruled

without Parliament, alienating much of English society, particularly the

Puritan church reformers and the gentry. When the Scots rebelled against his

religious policies and invaded England in 1640, he was forced to conclude a

humiliating peace and pay the invaders to withdraw.

 

     In this age of religious strife, the early Stuart kings consistently

provoked resentment from Protestant subjects. Although he was not a Catholic,

James made peace with Spain, abandoned his Protestant son-in-law during the

Thirty Years' War, and married Charles to a French princess, Henrietta Marie,

who brought her Catholic confessor to England. Both James and Charles regarded

Calvinism, with its independent clergy and elected synods, as threatening to

monarchy. James resolutely fought reform of the Anglican Church, threatening

to expel Calvinists from the country. Charles went further. Archbishop Laud,

his Anglican advisor, forced absolute conformity; he whipped, mutilated, and

jailed Protestant dissidents. As a result, thousands of religious refugees

left the country. The Scottish invasion, which led directly to civil war, was

a Calvinist reaction to Charles' religious policies.

 

     The English crisis was nevertheless as much political as religious. The

nation's governing class was divided; the economy was depressed; government

expenses were rising; and the common people were suffering hard times. The

struggle pitted the King's supporters, who advocated the king's divine right

to rule, levy taxes, and control the economy, against the opposition who

represented property owners and who wanted to govern in partnership with the

king, control expenditures, and be free from government regulation of business

affairs, particularly from royal monopolies. But the freedom that they

advocated usually meant protection of a minority's profits. These aspirations

reflected the country's commercial potential and the increasing self-awareness

of the urban middle classes.

 

The English Civil War And Interregnum

 

     After Charles agreed to buy off the Scots in 1640, he called Parliament

to raise the money and secure his future finances. Known later as the "Long

Parliament," because it sat through twenty years of constitutional debate and

civil war, this Parliament immediately began limiting the king's powers. Led

by the dauntless Puritan, John Pym, Parliament imprisoned Laud, executed

Charles' hated chief minister, the Earl of Strafford, provided for its own

regular meetings, abolished the royal courts of Star Chamber and High

Commission, and eliminated taxes levied without parliamentary consent. The

struggle with Charles would last another nine years; the monarchy would be

replaced by a republic for a decade; and then the monarch would be restored,

but absolutism was gone forever.

 

     Increasingly intense contention between Charles and Parliament polarized

public opinion and led to civil war, beginning in 1642. Charles left London in

January of that year, raising his standard at Nottingham in August. London

expected attack, but fighting began at South Molton, in Devonshire, where a

mob of men and women, armed with rocks, clubs, and muskets, resisted royalist

troops in the town square. During the ensuing civil war the royalists, or

"cavaliers," were largely countrymen, led by noblemen, such as the dashing

Prince Rupert, Charles' nephew and son of Elizabeth, the dethroned queen of

Bohemia. The parliamentary forces included many townsmen, although some

commanders, like the incompetent Earl of Essex, were aristocrats. English

women were active on both sides, petitioning Parliament, handling business

affairs while their men were fighting, and sometimes, as in the cases of the

royalist Countess of Derby or the Parliamentarian Lady Harley, supervising

defense of their homes against enemy soldiers.

 

     At first, the royalist forces were successful, until the rebels turned to

extreme measures. They made alliance with the Scots, reorganized their armies,

enlisted popular support, and raised their morale by appeals to radical

Protestantism. In 1646, they defeated Charles and took him prisoner. He

escaped and renewed the war as dissension arose between the conservative

Parliament and its more radical army. When Charles was defeated a second time,

the army officers defied parliament and their own soldiers who wanted a

democratic government. Led by the Puritan general, Oliver Cromwell

(1599-1658), they executed the king in 1649 and proclaimed a republic.

 

     Although their efforts were largely premature, some English rebels in

this period first conceived of democracy. Their most striking pronouncements

came from a group led by "honest John Lilburne" and known as "Levellers,"

because they advocated reforms to favor the common people. Many were active

among the soldiers in Cromwell's army. Between 1646 and 1649, Levellers and

the near-mutinous troops produced a series of documents, each known as an

"Agreement of the People." These first written democratic constitutions

proposed that the English government be organized as a republic, with a

one-house legislature elected by universal manhood suffrage. They did not

propose that women vote, but women were active in the movement, writing,

speaking, and organizing. The program did, however, list civil and religious

liberties, to be held as rights by all citizens. Thus the Levellers and their

"Agreements" anticipated modern democratic theory.

 

     The Leveller movement was suppressed when the officers regained control

of the army and established a military regime. Their government, known as "the

Commonwealth," was a republic dominated by property holders. It was never

popular enough to be maintained without military force. After Cromwell's death

in 1658, the system gave way almost immediately to a restored Stuart monarchy.

 

     Despite these failures, the period of the civil war and the interregnum

brought significant changes to England. Constitutionally, it confirmed

Parliament's necessary role in the English system, thereby decisively checking

the trend toward absolutism. At the same time, the royalist defeat opened

opportunities for capitalisic development and imperial expansion under

Cromwell. England effectively challenged the naval and maritime supremacy of

the Dutch in the 1650s, while beginning to develop into the world's leading

empire.

 

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