Monday, March 7, 2011

In Defense of Oliver Cromwell: Part 1: Historical Propaganda

Oliver Cromwell, often depicted as a
tyrant by historians, is a victim of
historical propaganda peddled by
those who have theological
differences with Cromwell.
by Steve C. Halbrook

(posts in this series: part 1part 2part 3)

If one were to thumb through the typical book on Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), he would likely “discover” one of two negative characterizations of him—“a monster or a victim of tragedy.”[1]  
Not surprising, given the secular, egalitarian, democratic bias of American historians.  Such is in continuance with the anti-Cromwell line of writings that flourished since the time of the Royalist return to power.  Cromwell’s reputation was so tarnished by the 1700s that he was seen, in the words of the novelist Tobias Smollett in 1758, as 
an amazing conjunction of enthusiasm, hypocrisy, and ambition, courage and resolution, penetration and dissimulation, the strangest compound of virtue and villainy, baseness and magnanimity, absurdity and good sense we find in the annals of mankind.[2]  
So it seems at best, Cromwell’s vices equal his virtues; at worst, Cromwell was a hypocrite.  Thus Charles Dickens’ biographer John Forster in 1839 found it “indisputably true” Cromwell “lived a hypocrite and died a traitor.”[3]  In keeping with Royalist sentiment, Sir Winston Churchill called Cromwell a “smokey soul.”[4]

Such “historical facts” should be called into question.  As Maurice Ashley writes: 
The historiography of Oliver Cromwell is of importance because it discloses why popular judgments have often been perverted or poisoned at the source.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the method of writing history as chronicle still largely prevailed, and these chronicles were regarded as records of events that had actually happened.  In fact, Royalist propaganda swept the board.  In the so-called Age of Enlightenment it became the fashion to write “philosophical” history, often based on these chronicles, in which grand generalizations and moral reflections took precedence over mastery of the facts.[5]

Oliver Cromwell
And so, in relying on Cromwell’s adversaries to inform his History of England, David Hume overwhelmingly regurgitates falsehoods about Cromwell’s character.[6]

In his The Protector: A Vindication, the great Reformation scholar Merle D’ Aubigne breaks with mainstream historians. According to D' Aubigne, far from a villain, Cromwell was one of  the greatest Protestants who ever lived.[7] 

In defense of Cromwell, D’ Aubigne writes: 
He [Cromwell] interfered violently in public affairs, and disturbed the constitutional order of the state.  This was his fault,—a fault that saved his country.  With the documents before us which have been published at various times, we are compelled, unless we shut our eyes to the truth, to change our opinion of him, and to acknowledge that the character hitherto attached to this great man is one of the grossest falsehoods in all history. 
Charles II., who succeeded him after Richard’s short protectorate; this monarch’s courtiers, not less immoral, but still more prepossessed than himself; the writers and statesmen too of this epoch,—all of them united in misrepresenting his memory.  The wicked followers of the Stuarts have blackened Cromwell’s reputation.  Protestantism was on its trial.   
There can be no doubt that the principles of civil liberty, which the family of James the First desired to crush, but which eventually triumphed in the English nation, and which have raised it to such an elevation, had a great share in this struggle; and no one man did more than Oliver towards development.  But the principle thing which drew down the anger of his enemies was Protestantism, in its boldest not less than its clearest form; and the false imputation born by this eminent man was essentially the work of Popery.  
In the seventeenth century, when the Protestant princes were everywhere intimidated, weakened, and dumb, and when some of them were making ready for a fatal apostasy, Cromwell was the only one to declare himself in the face of all Europe the protector of the true faith.  He even induced Cardinal Mazarin, a prince of the Romish Church, to connive at his generous designs.  
This is a crime for which he has never been pardoned, and for which his enemies have inflicted a        scandalous revenge.  In this task so much perseverance and skill have been employed, that not only enlightened Catholics, but even Protestants themselves have been deceived.  … In the struggle between Protestantism and Popery, which took place in the British isles in Cromwell’s time, the noblest part indisputably belongs to the former; and the mistakes of its adherents are unimportant compared with the excessive immorality and the frightful cruelties of which the friends of Rome were guilty.[8] 
Cromwell heroically defended Protestantism from the apostate Catholic Church.  Few virtues are more commendable than defending God’s church and His truth.  Nevertheless, anti-Cromwell accounts can only be expected, given the influence Catholics and Arminians (whom Cromwell also battled), as well as secular humanists, have over the writing (or re-writing) of history.  

     [1] Maurice Ashley, The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell (London: Readers Union Hodder and Stoughton, 1959), 18.
     [2] Ibid., 12, 13. 
     [3] Ibid., 13.
     [4] Ibid., 5.
     [5] Ibid., 21.
     [6] Ibid., 21.
     [7] Merle D’Aubigne, The Protector: A Vindication (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1983), 54, 55., 229.
     [8] Ibid., 17, 18.

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector: Part 1

Hear entire series


Brother Jim said...

Well written account of a Saint-Politico, who saved his nation, defended the Faith and paid with his historical reputation, thus following Christ's shame at the cross. His testimony should steel us for the work of our generation!

Steve C. Halbrook said...

Thank you, Jim. Well put: "paid with his historical reputation, thus following Christ's shame at the cross."