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    To what extent should we view Cromwell as a classical liberal? Was he really a man who favored more liberal and constitutional government, or was he a tyrant who wanted a state church?

    Thank you


    Hello John,

    I’m tied up with personal issues at the moment. Give me a little while and I’ll reply properly to your question.

    Best wishes,

    Gerard Casey


    Hello John,

    Thank you for being so patient!

    You ask if we should view Cromwell as a classical liberal? Well, I’m inclined to say that the presupposition of your question is slightly anachronistic. I doubt very much if anyone in the seventeenth apart from a very few bold thinkers could be described as being classical liberals.

    Cromwell was a major figure in a struggle between Parliament and King which had not only political but religious implications. This struggle is often portrayed as one between lovers of freedom and supporters of tyranny but the reality is considerably less black and white. For the last 10 years of his life, Cromwell was, in effect, king of England, and, if anything, rather more inclined towards tyranny than Charles I!

    This is the context of the extraordinary attack on Cromwell made by one Edward Sexby in his Killing Noe Murder. I reproduce the short account of this attack from my Freedom’s Progress?

    Killing Noe Murder
    Once Oliver Cromwell took power, the fluid post-conflict political situation hardened and it seemed for a time as if a new royal dynasty was going to be established. The prospect of this produced one spectacular piece of writing from this period that doesn’t fit neatly into either the Leveller or the Digger camp but harkens back to an earlier tradition of the justification of tyrannicide. This is Edward Sexby’s (aka William Allen’s) ‘Killing Noe Murder (1657). This tract has to be one of the most extraordinary productions of the revolutionary period, both in content and in sustained literary sardonic style. It is a general defence of tyrannicide addressed to the specific desired object of that exercise, Cromwell! Nothing in life, Sexby thinks, will become Cromwell better than his leaving of it. ‘To your Highness justly belongs the honour of dying for the people,’ he says, ‘and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it.’

    Sexby believes three questions need to be considered; first, is Cromwell a tyrant?; second, if he is, is it lawful to kill him?; and third, if lawful, would his killing be beneficial or harmful to the commonwealth? Let us take a look at Sexby’s treatment of the first two of these questions. Sexby makes the common distinction between two types of tyrant: those who although entitled to govern, do so tyrannically (tyrannus exercitio); and those who aren’t entitled to govern at all (tyrannus sine titulo). To further his accusation of tyranny against Cromwell, Sexby supplies us with a list of characteristics of the tyrant which he has gleaned from a variety of sources, including Plato, Aristotle, Tacitus and Machiavelli. Many tyrants begin their career as military defenders of the people against oppression, which oppression, that battle won, they then themselves resume. They use fraud more than force. They eliminate all possible competitors and all persons of excellence. They limit or prohibit public assemblies. They are always well guarded. They impose burdensome taxes and duties and excise on the people. They use war as a way to divert people from the ills they suffer and as a spurious means of justifying the taxes and levies. They use others to do their dirty work. They pretend to love God and even to be divinely inspired. [Sexby, 368-370] On all these counts, Sexby thinks, Cromwell fits the bill. The answer to the first question, then, is yes—Cromwell is a tyrant.

    So, he now asks Cromwell for the source of his authority. Who, he asks, ‘made thee a prince and a judge over us?’ If God, please show us evidence of this. If the people, how was this done? ‘If to change the government without the people’s consent; if to dissolve their representatives by force and disannul their acts; if to give the name of the people’s representatives to confederates of his own, that he may establish iniquity by a law; if to take away men’s lives out of all course of law, by certain murderers of his own appointment, whom he names a High Court of Justice; if to decimate men’s estates, and by his own power to impose upon the people what taxes he pleases; and to maintain all by force of arms: if I say, all this does make a tyrant, his own impudence cannot deny, but he is as complete a one as ever has been since there have been societies of men.’ Cromwell, then, is a tyrant and a tyrant without title.

    As a tyrant without title, may Cromwell be lawfully killed? Sexby adheres to the traditional view that a ruler who has degenerated into a tyrant (tyrannus exercitio) may be brought to justice by the people’s representatives but not by a private individual acting without authority. On the other hand, tyrants without title are simply criminals who deserve ‘no benefit from human society’ and ‘no protection from the law.’ Men enter society to live and to live well and to do so they submit to the law of reason and justice. Without law, Sexby remarks in a Hobbesian manner, men’s appetites ‘would quickly make society as unsafe, or more, than solitude itself, and we should associate only to be nearer our misery and our ruin.’ But a tyrant without title is under no law. He is not only not a magistrate, he isn’t even a member of society properly conceived. ‘A tyrant,’ he says, ‘being no part of the commonwealth, nor submitting to the laws of it, but making himself above all law, there is no reason why he should have the protection that is due to a member of a commonwealth, nor any defence from laws, that does acknowledge none.’ [Sexby, 372] As the tyrant without title, then, isn’t under any law, individuals may defend themselves against him by appropriate means including deadly force if necessary. In a passage that recalls the famous interview between Alexander and the Pirate, and which will warm the hearts of libertarians, Sexby writes, ‘for what can be more absurd in nature, and contrary to all common sense, than to call him thief and kill him that comes alone with a few to rob me, and to call him Lord Protector and obey him that robs me with regiments and troops….But if it be the number of adherents only, not the cause, that makes the difference between a robber and a Protector, I wish that number were defined, that we might know where the thief ends and the prince begins, and be able to distinguish between a robbery and a tax.’

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