Two Lives of Cromwell
WHY has Cromwell so astonishingly come to his own in the past few years ? It is not simply a literary phenomenon. Carlyle’s Rettung worked something of a revulsion in the learned world ; but even there pygmies soon reared themselves on the giant’s shoulders to remark condescendingly that, of course, Carlyle had “ never seen the Clark Papers,” and so needed infinite correction ; while it may be doubted if the flame-girt-hero theory of Cromwell ever took a sure hold of the popular imagination. Yet it is the popular return to Cromwell which is the striking thing. Where once his skull grinned on a pole at Westminster, his statue now rises defiantly; and as “ not a dog barked ” at him when he turned Parliament out of doors, so only bishops and a few lords barked when his effigy was placed for admiration and remembrance in the very parliamentary precincts which he violated. Lord Rosebery, who was, bien entendu, the “ unknown donor ” of the statue, about whom Lord Salisbury jested, saw the true hiding of Cromwell’s power in his being “ a practical mystic, the most formidable and terrible of all combinations.” Frederic Harrison praises him as “ the first political genius of his time.” To go further back, Macaulay pronounced him “ the greatest prince that ever ruled England.” Even Southey said of him that no man was ever “ so worthy of the station which he filled.” But how, out of these generalities, can we deduce the real ground for the Cromwell revival, — the real reason for our latter-day laudation of the man and his ideals and deeds? Mr. Gardiner, — that “giant of research,” as John Morley calls him, “ our greatest living master in history,” in Frederic Harrison’s phrase, “ who, with enormous industry and perseverance, just manages to write the events of one year in the seventeenth century within each twelve months of his own laborious life,” — Mr. Gardiner, in the second volume of his History of the Commonwealth, published three years ago, said the truer word, — a word which seems also almost prophetic, in view of what has happened since. To this calm historian, the deepest reason why Cromwell has become “ the national hero of the nineteenth century ” is that, “ like him, modern Britain has waged wars, annexed territory, extended trade, and raised her head among the nations. Like him, her sons have been unable to find complete satisfaction in their achievements unless they could persuade themselves that the general result was beneficial to others besides themselves. It is inevitable that now, as then, such an attitude should draw upon itself the charge of hypocrisy.” An obvious application of this scripture might be made to the Britain beyond the seas, and to the latest American biographer of Cromwell.
Oliver Cromwell. By JOHN MOBLEY. New York : The Century Co, 1900.
Oliver Cromwell. By THEODORE ROOSEVELT. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900.
But if our century is harking back to the seventeenth for a reassuring statesman, able to show us how to knock people on the head, as Cromwell did the monks at Drogheda, for their own good and ad majorem Dei gloriam, we at least carry our critical apparatus and our historic method along with us. The old way was to make Cromwell out either saint or devil. We moderns aim to understand rather than to judge.
Mr. Gardiner marks the great transition in his quiet putting one side of all the old personal controversies, heated and bitter: “ With the man we are concerned only so far as a knowledge of him may enable us to understand his work.” Contrast this with the Rhadamanthus air of even the liberal Clarendon, summoning before the judgment seat the “ brave bad man,” who “ had all the wickedness against which damnation is denounced and for which hell fire is prepared.” Mr. Morley, on his part, passes over to the serene impartiality, if not forgiveness, of the tout comprendre. He speaks of “ the common error ” of ascribing “ far too much to the designs and the influence of eminent men,” and directs our gaze rather to “the momentum of past events, the spontaneous impulses of the mass of a nation or a race, the pressure of general hopes and fears.” Not so Governor Roosevelt. For him, the great question is whether Cromwell and the regicides were “ right,” whether Oliver was “thoroughly justified.” With undergraduate truculence he re-threshes this old straw. The moralist in him is too much for the historian. “ As the historic school,” writes Mr. Morley, “ has come to an end that dispatched Oliver Cromwell as a hypocrite, so we are escaping from the other school that dismissed Charles as a tyrant, Laud as a driveler and a bigot, and Wentworth as an apostate.” But Roosevelt is only pawing to get free. Laud, he tells us, was a “small and narrow man ; ” Wentworth “ had obtained his price ; ” and Charles’s character is painted in the blackest colors. “ It is pretty safe to be sure,” says Mr. Morley, to whom we naturally turn for comfort, “ that these slashing superlatives are never true.”
The conjunction of these two lives of Cromwell in both magazine and book makes the reviewer’s task easy. A hint has already been given of the unconscious way in which Mr. Morley applies the rod of correction. In general, if the reader is puzzled or offended by a passage in Roosevelt, he may find the appropriate comment in Morley. Take a specimen case or two. The Governor speaks of “ Cromwell’s tremendous policies” which have been carried to “ fruition ” in the past century and a half. Nay, says Mr. Morley; “ when it is claimed that no English ruler did more than Cromwell to shape the future of the land he governed, we run some risk of straining history only to procure incense for retrograde ideals.” If any man says that this is only one authority against another, one no better than the other, let him hear the voice of an impartial umpire. Mr. Gardiner, who by anticipation sets Governor Roosevelt right in so many points of mere fact, sets him right also in this point of mingled fact and philosophy. Cromwell, he writes, “ effected nothing in the way of building up where he had pulled down, and there was no single act of the Protectorate that was not swept away at the Restoration without hope of revival” Think of that other military revolutionist, Napoleon. His family rule failed as signally as Cromwell’s ; his form of government was swept away ; but he had the brain of a constructive statesman, and, as Mr. Bod ley has recently shown once more, the type of administration and of law which he stamped upon France has persisted through all governmental upheavals, so that the veriest pékin of a Republican minister who to-day journeys to a department gets the military salute ordered in such cases by the Emperor Napoleon. Cromwell’s great work was negative. He wrote with his sword the thing that should not be in England. What he attempted to say should be was writ in water. This fixes the true point of view for determining his historic position. According to Roosevelt, Cromwell and the Puritans were “ the beginning of the great modern epoch of the English-speaking world.” Mr. Morley takes issue, as squarely and verbally as if he had foreseen who would be inviting refutation at his hands: “Cromwell’s revolution was the end of the mediæval rather than the beginning of the modern era.” The reason is that Oliver had “little of that faith in Progress that became the inspiration of a later age,” and that for “ the driving force of modern government ” — Public Opinion — he had but “ a strictly limited regard.” Nor is it a mere strife about words to dispute whether Cromwell began the new or simply ended the old. The whole philosophy of English liberty turns on the nice distinction.
Colonel Roosevelt’s life of the Protector is a very characteristic bit of extemporized and headlong vigor. His account of Cromwell’s battles is written with the stern joy of a warrior, and with a good deal of rough force and picturesqueness. One may doubt, however, if his description of Dunbar fight will ever be taken over, as Carlyle’s Rossbach was, for a textbook in use by the Prussian General-Staff. Indeed, in this very province of military expertness, the civilian Morley, though he expressly puts the thunder of the captains and the shouting one side, shows a better acquaintance with the latest material, German and other, than the soldier Roosevelt. A hasty getting up of his case is, indeed, too often betrayed by the latter. What he says, for example, about the lack of “ material prosperity ” in England under Charles, of the working of the Navigation Act, of the “ uppermost motive ” in Cromwell’s foreign policy, needs to be checked by reference to easily accessible authorities. But it is clear that he never thought of writing his Life of Cromwell as sober-sided history. In none of his writings is there room for Burns’s doubt whether the thing would turn out “ sang ” or sermon ; the sermon is sure to come sooner or later. A political moralist and exhorter by main bent, the Governor uses Cromwell as a peg on which to hang his own hat. Really, as one reads his frequent excursuses, the feeling grows that the book should have been called Cromwell’s Difficulties Elucidated by OfficeHolding in New York ; or, Cromwell as an Example of Compromise; or, Cromwell and the Impossible Best. The political philosophy preached is mostly of the slapdash order, and too frequently the reader’s only resource is to recall that eighteenth - century biographer of Cromwell, of whom Carlyle said that, with all his faults, he “ has occasionally a helpless broad innocence of platitude which is almost interesting.”
“ Ah! Sire, ce Cromwell était tout autre chose,” said the Dutch ambassador to Charles II., when the latter complained of being shown less deference than the late Protector by Holland. So must any reader say who turns from Roosevelt’s volume to Morley’s. It is not simply a question of more practiced and pointed writing. “ Remarquez,” said Voltaire, “ que les hommes qui ont le mieux pensé sont aussi ceux qui ont le mieux écrit.” It is the antecedent thinking, the breadth of outlook, by which Mr. Morley charms, as much as by his brilliant style. “ Universal history has been truly said to make a large part of every national history.” That is Mr. Morley’s starting point; and as Emerson said of Carlyle that his Frederick the Great was written as by a man of cosmic knowledge descending on chaos, so we may say Mr. Morley reads Cromwell’s time by the light of the “ central line of beacon fires that mark the onward journey of the race.” His flashes of illumination from the French Revolution are particularly enlightening. And he fairly oozes political philosophy as he goes on, seeing the general truth in the particular instance with a piercing gaze, and stating it with an epigrammatic power, that remind one of Burke. It would be easy to string a full circlet of these gems of his : “ To be a pedant is to insist on applying a stiff theory to fluid fact.” “ To impose broad views upon the narrow is one of the things that a party leader exists for.” “The first of those moments of fatigue had come that attend all revolutions.” “ No inconsiderable part of history is a record of the illusions of statesmen.” “ As soon as people see a leader knowing how to calculate, they slavishly assume that the aim of his calculations can be nothing else than his own interest.” “ It is not always palatable for men in power to be confronted with their aims in Opposition.” But there would be no end if one were to go on citing passages marked. Mr. Morley has recklessly invited the condemnation of the Rev. Æthelbald Wessex, whose opinion it was that “ in history you cannot trust a fellow who tries to be interesting. If he pretends to be philosophical, you may know him to be an impostor.” If saturation with his material, a power of luminous condensation, and a fascinating gift for expression that captures the judgment while it haunts the memory, — if these are the leading credentials of an historian, then Mr. Morley is an historian almost hors concours among living writers. Milton, in Hugo’s play, is made to beseech the Protector to put away the offered crown, finally crying out, —
In Mr. Morley’s page Cromwell becomes himself again, and that by dint of faithful painting, wart and all. The poet Waller, with the suppleness of a Vicar of Bray, had his verses ready to greet the restored Charles II. But that monarch thought they did not ring as true as the same poet’s Panegyric to the Lord Protector, and asked for an explanation of the poetical falling off. “ Ah! ” said the deft Waller, “ we poets always get on better with fiction than with the truth.” Mr. Morley, however, brushes away the fiction both of indiscriminate eulogy and of indiscriminate abuse, and shows us the true Cromwell, in his habit as he lived.