November 23, 2006

United in Forgetting: John Winthrop and Massachussets, Oliver Cromwell and England


This article from the Massachussets Historical Review highlights something that historians are increasingly finding to be true on both sides of the Atlantic. Both the United Kingdom and the United States were formed in the crucible of religious warfare, both owe institutions and habits of thought to the attempts at magisterial reformation in the mid-seventeenth Century. Both though are going through the same historical process as regards the historiography of that period of history. In the United States, whereas the Puritan founders of Boston took their foremost places in the celebrations of 1830 and 1880, their importance faded so much so that John Winthrop, the first governor, wasn't even mentioned as amongst the famous thirteen sons of Massachussets in the commemoration of 1980. In England despite the recent Great Britons program on Cromwell, Cromwell's legacy so divisive as late as the 1890s when his statue was put up outside Parliament, has faded along with the appeal of the Victorian ideologues who sustained him. In Scotland, whose national origins owe more to the covenanters of 1640 than the Catholic queen of 1587, it is the tragic Mary and not the stern Argyll that dominates the historical imagination. Whether in America, England or Scotland, the mind of the public seems to drift to more marginal figures- to the Anne Hutchisons of Massachussets, or to the memories cultivated by Tony Benn of John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley (Lilburne was a Leveller- they argued according to some modern historians for democracy, Winstanley was a Digger who some today believe was a proto-communist) or in Scotland to the Queen of Scots.

Imagined pasts always show us much more about the present than they do about the past itself. The fading and failure of Winthrop and Cromwell in the historical imagination and the gains made by Hutchinson and Lilburne don't reflect a gain in the ideology of the latter over the former at all- Lilburne and Cromwell held pretty similar views. What they do reflect though is a fall in the credibility of the virtues of the Puritans- modern thinkers are much more likely to think of puritanism as patriarchal, prim and anti-Catholic than they are to associate it with Whig narratives of the triumph of Parliament or Constitutional government. The fall of Winthrop or Cromwell reflects the rejection in many ways of the great institutional historical myths- the mother of Parliaments- especially in England but in America too- in favour of the newer myths of the liberation of peoples. Americans look at 1776, 1865, 1928 as liberational moments, Britons feel pride in 1806 and 1918 in the same way. The dates of institutional history (with the significant exception of the Revolution) seem to have faded in the public mind- who now knows the date of the Constitutions of Oxford. Consequently historical figures like Winthrop or Cromwell who bequeathed great institutional changes are going out of fashion, whereas those like Hutcheson or Lilburne whose legacy was one of impotent protest come into fashion. The personalisation of political life, the re-creation of a narrative of the liberation of individual rights through the feminist and anti-racist movements- have changed our notions of who and what is admirable in the past.

Lilburne and Hutcheson capture the modern imagination because though they were insignificant, they were jailed and campaigned for liberation- who knows what they would have done in government. Cromwell and Winthrop did many terrible things- but they also created institutions of government which persist to this day. The modern imagination appears to be captured more by Lilburne's protest for individual rights, than Cromwell's attempts to design a Parliament that worked.

PS In the comments Mr Higham makes a useful point- just to make it clear this argument is not to say that Cromwell founded the English Parliament merely that his period of rule was influential in establishing some of its powers. The history of English law dates back at least a thousand years and the Parliament to at least the reign of John.

2 comments:

james higham said...

The fall of Winthrop or Cromwell reflects the rejection in many ways of the great institutional historical myths- the mother of Parliaments- especially in England but in America too- in favour of the newer myths of the liberation of peoples. Americans look at 1776, 1865, 1928 as liberational moments, Britons feel pride in 1806 and 1918 in the same way.

Yes indeed and where do you place Henry II in this?

Gracchi said...

Obviously the foundation of a system is a process extending over over a thousand years- you could date the foundation of the common law back to the first codes of Ine. But waht I was interested in is not so much the question of who did it but the question of how the people who influenced that process are forgotten now largely in favour of other people. It strikes me that the institutional history- I agree Henry has a part to play in that- I mentioned Oxford, you could mention Clarendon, you could mention Coke etc are largely unknown. Test Britain for who knows about Henry and you'll find nobody. Good point sorry I obscured myself at that poitn but I do know and have studied Henry I just got overenthusiastic but the point I'm making isn't really connected to taht problem.