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The Great Political Fiction

Commons Debates 1628 Volume I: Introduction and Reference Materials Volume II: March 17-April 19, 1628 Volume III: April 21-May 27, 1628

edited by Robert C. Johnson, edited by Mary Frear Keeler, edited by Maija Jansson Cole, edited by William B. Bidwell
Yale University Press, Vol. III, 641 pp., $35.00

Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 Volume I: August 1774-August 1775 Volume II: August-December 1775

edited by Paul H. Smith
Library of Congress, Vol. II, 585 pp., $9.00

The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Volume I: Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776-1787 Volume II: Ratification of the Constitution by States, Pennsylvania

edited by Merrill Jensen
State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Vol. 2, 779 pp., $27.00

The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788-1790, Volume I

edited by Merrill Jensen, edited by Robert A. Becker
University of Wisconsin Press, 896 pp., $30.00


The current fashion in American historical research is to discover things about the past that the people who lived in it are not likely to have known about themselves, things like the mean or median age at which they married, how much longer they could expect to live at any given age, how their wealth was distributed, in what ethnic or geographic or economic patterns they cast their votes, and so on. In the midst of all this counting and computing a number of historians and archivists have been quietly carrying forward a work that contributes very little to it but that tells us more completely and more reliably than ever before what some people in the past did know, and what they thought, about themselves and the world they lived in.

The first great enterprises of this kind in our time were the new editions of the papers of the founding fathers, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, and most recently Washington, editions that include the letters a man received as well as those he wrote, so that the reader can follow the course of his thinking and his exchange of thoughts with his contemporaries. These editions, some of them now moving past the twentieth volume, have already made it possible to get inside the mind of eighteenth-century America in a way that was never before available to any but the most assiduous student.

Now we begin to get the first fruits of another kind of editorial enterprise that offers extraordinary excitement to anyone who still cares what people in the past thought about themselves and in particular what they thought about the way they were governed. These are editions, not of the papers of a particular man, but of the surviving documents that concern crucial political episodes or developments, editions that offer the reader virtually all the surviving evidence of what was said and done. Here are four of the first examples, and a splendid achievement they are.

The first of them may seem out of place in this review. Why consider debates in the English House of Commons in 1628 along with documents on American developments in the late eighteenth century? The juxtaposition is not capricious, because the Commons during this period generated many of the ideas that were later embodied in the government of the United States. This is not the place to pursue that lengthy line of descent. Instead, merely to suggest the richness of these collections, it may be enough to draw from them a few of the fictions by which Englishmen and Americans have governed themselves from the seventeenth century to the present.

All government, of course, rests on fictions, whether we call them that or self-evident truths; and political fictions, like other fictions, require a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of those who live under them. The suspension is seldom total, and when it is the results are disastrous. For the individual, total suspension of disbelief in any fiction spells insanity, an inability to distinguish the real world from make-believe; and in politics total suspension of disbelief can lead to 1984, with autocratic governments ruling over autistic subjects. A fiction should not be mistaken for a fact, and the mistake is sometimes easy to make, since ideally the one should be seen to approach the other. For a political fiction to be acceptable to sane men and women it must, while remaining a fiction, bear some resemblance to fact. There has to be at least a kernel of truth in it, which government must nourish by trying to make facts resemble it; and both governors and governed must join in a benign conspiracy to suspend disbelief without mistaking fiction for fact.

Englishmen and Americans have generally managed to sustain such a conspiracy, but occasionally either governors or governed have taken a fiction too literally, have taken it for fact, and in so doing have destroyed it—and sometimes destroyed themselves. Our own favorite fiction, the sovereignty of the people, the fiction that the people are masters of their governors, has lasted now for three centuries and gives no signs of giving up the ghost. But in 1628 it had not yet made its appearance in the Anglo-American world. The Commons Debates of that year can give us some perspective on it and on ourselves, because the Commons would have found it a laughable concept (though most of them would cry themselves into it by 1642). The favorite fiction of 1628 was, at least seemingly, quite different: it was the divine right of kings.

On the face of it this seems today so absurd a fiction that we find it difficult to believe anyone in his right mind could have suspended disbelief in it. It was particularly absurd in the persons of its principal English exponents, James I, who reigned from 1603 to 1625, and Charles I, who reigned from 1625 to 1649 (when the Commons terminated the fiction by chopping off his divine head). James, who expounded the divine right of kings at greatest length, assuring his people that he was the maker of all laws and the giver of all good things, was a slob and a bit of a crook. He drank almost to the point of alcoholism and was frequently befuddled. He stank, because he did not like to bathe. In an age of Puritanism (and the Commons was loaded with Puritans) he shocked everyone by kissing and fondling his young men in public. He lectured the members of the House, many of whom were his intellectual superiors, as though they were schoolboys, and occasionally he lied to them. His son Charles was more attractive in his person but more of a crook. He was always demanding that Parliament rely on his royal word and he lied and lied and lied. How anyone could speak of either of these two louts as God’s lieutenant and keep a straight face is hard to see. The Commons Debates of 1628 show how it was done.

The edition (of which we have the first installment in three volumes) includes all the surviving records, many of which have remained in manuscript until now: private diaries kept by members, notes, transcripts, and other miscellaneous documents, besides the official journal kept by the clerk. The editors have arranged them day by day, to put before the reader, in one place, all the evidence of what was said and done on a particular day. For important speeches there are usually notes taken by several different listeners and sometimes the speaker’s own notes, so that the reader can put together as complete a version of the speech as is now possible. This was the session of Parliament that produced the Petition of Right (the grandfather, along with Magna Carta, of all modern bills of rights). The speeches of the men who drafted and adopted that document are worth listening to.

They all seem to have believed in the divine right of kings, but not in quite the same way that James and Charles did. The Commons did not say, “The king is God’s lieutenant, therefore we must do what he wants.” Instead, they said, “The king is God’s lieutenant, therefore he must want what we want, because we want only what is right.” The king, being all wise, all good, the acme of perfection, could do no wrong—that was part of the fiction. Therefore if his government did something wrong, it must be without his authorization. It was the business of the Commons to bring these wrongs to the king’s attention and to bring the offenders to punishment by the courts or by the House of Lords or by the king himself.

Charles did not make it easy for them. If they went after one of his underlings or favorites for what they took to be a violation of the rights of subjects, Charles would declare the man to be acting on his orders. It was thus necessary for the Commons to be hard of hearing. They could not have heard the king say quite what he seemed to have said, or if he did say it, cunning counselors must have fed him false information. He certainly could not have meant to authorize anything wrong. The Commons knew what he must really want better than he knew himself, confused as he may momentarily have been by the satanic lies of those who always stood ready to confound the best of kings. The Commons would rescue him, and in 1628 he clearly needed rescuing.

He needed rescuing because the previous year he had seemingly authorized a forced loan, requiring subjects to lend him the money that the Commons had been unwilling to give him. Those who would not lend, including several leaders of the Commons, had been imprisoned; and the king’s courts had refused to release them, even though the king and his ministers had declined to name charges against them after a writ of habeas corpus was served on the jailers. The Commons, acting on their heady assumption of royal rightness, apprised the king of how gravely he disapproved of these wrongs committed by his unworthy servants, and they drafted a definition of the rights of subjects to security of property and liberty of person (the Petition of Right) so that the courts could never again ignore the king’s true wishes.

Sir John Eliot, fresh from imprisonment for refusing the forced loan, which he was much too astute to think was not the king’s own doing, insisted that the king could have known nothing about it: “The goodness of the King,” he cried, “is like the glory of the sun, not capable in itself of any obscurity or eclipse, but only by intervenient and dark clouds it may seem to be eclipsed and diminished to us. So by interposition of officers the goodness of the King may be darkened to us.” And Sir Edward Coke, the greatest jurist of his day, grew rapturous: “In him is all the confidence we have under God. He is God’s lieutenant. Trust him we must.” But this was prelude to an argument not to trust the royal word but to insist on the king’s formal approval of a written statement of rights.

It looks a little ridiculous, the Commons posing as champions of the king’s honor against the king himself. But it worked, at least temporarily. Give a king a good name and then make him live up to it. Because the king badly needed the money that only the Commons could get for him (the forced loan had not been enough), they were able to make him accept the words of the Petition of Right as what he wanted; and the words went on the statute book where the courts would have to accept them too.

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