wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Edmund Morgan

Inventing the People

Limitations on the monarch—Magna Carta, the Petition of Right—had been a distinguishing mark of the ancient constitution to which England had presumably returned in 1660. But in the hysteria induced by the popish plot, the Whigs feared that James or any other Catholic sovereign, once on the throne and backed by unscrupulous and sinister forces at home and abroad, would sweep away any constitutional barriers to Catholicism and to the arbitrary government that went with it. When the king's friends in Parliament pressed for the limitations he had suggested as an alternative to alteration of the succession, the Whigs treated the opportunity as a ruse: 'I should be glad to be shown,' said Sir Nicholas Carew, 'any bonds and fetters that a Prince, when he comes to the crown, shall not easily break.' The only safeguard worth having was the exclusion of the duke or any other Catholic from the throne.

In pursuit of their objective the Whigs had to overcome the prevailing notions of divine right, in which hereditary succession was so firmly ensconced. To challenge that succession, it was convenient, if not essential, to remove its sanctity by placing the origin both of government and of kingship in popular choice or compact. But the Whigs drew back from pursuing this thought, at least publicly, to the point of making Parliament (as Henry Parker had in 1642) the successor to the primeval assembly that began and denned the government. The 'original compact' was best left undisturbed in the distant, indeed the fictional, past, lest its resurrection in the present produce another rash of Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters on the one hand, or a Protector backed by a New Model army on the other. A change in the succession, though necessary for keeping out Catholicism, must not invite any change in the structure of government, not even to an elective monarchy.

The Whigs' brand of popular sovereignty accordingly stressed adherence to the ancient constitution of king. Lords, and Commons. They strenuously denied the Tory contention that legislative authority derived solely from the king and reaffirmed the claim of the early 1640s that the power of Parliament, conferred directly by the people, was coordinate with that conferred at the same time on the king. But this did not mean that parliament was superior to the king. Although they affirmed the right of the people to resist a popish monarch, their actual efforts to exclude James all assumed the unaltered continuance of the existing government and would thus have required the consent of the king and the House of Lords as well as the Commons. The history of England, they could easily show, recorded more than one instance in which Lords and Commons with the consent of the monarch, had determined the succession to the throne, the latest conveniently located in the reign of the revered Elizabeth. Both their strategy and the application of popular sovereignty on which it rested required the cooperation of a reigning monarch who had not, yet at least, forfeited his throne. The king could thus defeat their efforts by dissolving Parliament: they were unwilling to go as far as Parliament did in 1641 by resorting to an ordinance (that did not carry his assent) in place of a law.

The Whigs were unwilling to go that far because it would probably have meant civil war with the attendant miseries and uncertainties that were still fresh in memory. The Whigs were led, moreover, by a peer, the Earl of Shaftesbury, whose conception of popular sovereignty assigned a primary role in government to the nobility. There were, he maintained, only two ways for a monarch to sustain his authority. One was a standing army, which was Cromwell's way, to be abhorred by all good Englishmen. The other was through his nobility: 'If you will not have one,' he told his fellow peers in the House of Lords, 'you must have the other, or else the Monarch cannot long support itself from tumbling down into a Democratical Republick.' It went without saying that no one wanted England to tumble down there. Shaftesbury would gladly have seen the popular character of the House of Commons enlarged by a more equitable distribution of representation, but he would have confined both voting and officcholding to 'the optimacy,' that is, to substantial propertyholders. The existing electorate contained too many persons 'of a mean and abject Fortune in the World.' Such men were too easily 'Corrupted and Seduced by die inveiglements of a little Money for a Pot of Ale: whilst those whose Circumstances are more enlarged, have their thoughts so likewise, being thereby raised beyond such low alurements.'

Even the most daring affirmation of popular sovereignty published at this time, Plato Redivivus by Henry Neville, was extremely cautious in allowing the people a role in government except under the guidance of their betters. Anarchy, Neville felt, was the inevitable result of letting the people, under the influence of some popular leader, alter the established government. And "that which Originally causes this Disorder, is the admitting (in the beginning of a Government, or afterwards) the meaner sort of People, who have no share in the Territory, into an equal part of Ordering the Commonwealth.' Neville followed Harrington in linking power to the possession of property. Given the wide distribution of property in England and the relatively small share of it in the king's possession, the stability that all Englishmen longed for was not to be had by enlarging the king's prerogative, as the proponents of divine right contended, because the king had 'a greater Power already than the condition of Property at this present can admit, without Confusion and Disorder.' Neville would have revamped the government to give more power to Parliament, but he did not propose like Harrington to have his changes introduced by some conquering hero. Neville was writing in 1681, and he rejected the very thought of a conquering hero. The sovereignty of the people in 1681 demanded that any changes be made, as the Whigs were trying to change the succession, legally, by the unanimous consent of king, Lords, and Commons.

Neville was well advised to speak so cautiously. The Exclusion Crisis prompted at least two other Whigs, John Locke and Algernon Sidney, to write more sweeping defenses of popular sovereignty, but neither saw fit to publish what he wrote at the rime. Sidney was hanged in 1683 for treason simply on the basis of a few pages of notes, seized in his quarters, in which he assigned the origin and limitation of government to the people, with a right to depose rulers who betrayed their trust. Sidney's view of the way in which the people could act scarcely invited spontaneous popular uprising. The decay of the ancient constitution he attributed, like Harrington, to the decay of the nobility, and the loss of the military services of their tenants. With no command of men, they could neither protect the weak, nor curb the insolent. 'By this means all things have bin brought into the hands of the King and the Commoners.' Which meant that 'That which might have been easily performed when the people was armed, and had a great, strong, virtuous and powerful Nobility to lead them, is made difficult, now they are disarmed, and that Nobility abolished.'

Sidney cast his whole treatise in the form of a line-by-line refutation of Filmer, whom he and other philosphically minded Whigs identified as the most formidable intellectual opponent of any form of popular sovereignty. Most of John Locke's Two Treatises of Government would have taken the same form, if he had not lost or suppressed the better part of the first treatise. Except for a few paragraphs added later, he evidently wrote both treatises between 1679 and 1681, and they were doubtless originally intended to justify exclusion. Locke was a protege of the Earl of Shaftesbury, escaped with him to Holland in 1682, and sought refuge there again in 1683 when Sidney was executed for writing a much more restrained affirmation of popular sovereignty than Locke's.'

Locke is a special case, partly because his Second Treatise has become the classical exposition of popular sovereignty, and partly because it did not achieve that position until long after it was written. Until the present century, Locke's Treatises, first published in 1600, were thought to have been occasioned by the Revolution of 1688. Their exposition of the popular origin of government and of the right of the people to depose a king or any other ruler who betrays his trust was much more sweeping than can be found in any published tract of the Exclusion Crisis. Not surprisingly they seemed better designed to justify the revolution that immediately preceded their publication than the attempted exclusion of ten years earlier. Indeed, it now appears that Locke went farther than the other Whigs of 1688 were ready to go, and his work began to furnish the standard justification of the Glorious Revolution only after the government that rested on that revolution had demonstrated its stability and the Revolution itself was comfortably far behind.