Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Neo-Harringtonianism and A Letter Sent to General Monk (1660) Revisited

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Neo-Harringtonianism and A Letter Sent to General Monk (1660) Revisited

Article excerpt

In a back issue of The Seventeenth Century, Nicholas von Maltzahn suggested that a pamphlet entitled A Letter Sent to General Monk, to St. Albons the 29 of January (1660), published shortly before the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, might have been written by the Civil War republican Henry Neville.1 Von Maltzahn argues that the Letter, which is signed 'H. N.', contains the 'essence' of Neville's so-called 'neo-Harringtonian' position and antedates 'to the eve of the Restoration Neville's combination of republican thought with the language of the ancient constitution' as outlined in his 1681 philosophical dialogue Plato Redivivus.2 The pamphlet calls on the commander-in-chief of the armed forces General George Monck to reconcile the nation by restoring the MPs secluded from the Long Parliament by the Army at Pride's Purge in December 1648, and so help the transition towards an ordered monarchical government after the failure of successive Interregnum regimes.

The Letter was published in the crucial weeks between the breakdown of the government by the restored Rump of the Long Parliament and the establishment of Charles II on the English throne. In it, its author defends the 'Ancient [monarchical] Government of England' as based on the principle of popular sovereignty and secured by Magna Charta and the Petition of Right.3 These 'two excellent Laws' were the 'pillars of the peoples liberty' because they preserved 'the property and liberty of all sorts and ranks of men'. The 'single person could not legally encroach upon the Nobility and Gentry [in Parliament], nor they upon the Commonalty' because 'each had such a check upon other, that they were a ballance each to other'. The 'single person' was then 'limited and bounded' by the coronation oath to govern according to the law, and neither the royal veto nor the King's prerogative power in the intervals of Parliament would diminish the freedom of the people as Parliament's tight hold on the purse strings would always ensure the monarch's dependence on his subjects' favour. The militia meanwhile could not be manipulated into serving 'the Lust and Ambition of any single person' because it 'was placed in mens hands of Estates and Interest', who would never act 'against Law and Reason'.4

Like Neville's Plato Redivivus, the Letter thus praises England's ancient government as founded on Magna Charta and promotes popular sovereignty. It is interested in 'the balance [of power] of the one, the few and the many' in government and emphasises 'the role of the gentry in controlling the militia'.5 Besides that, it also proposes 'an Expedient for admitting the Members excluded [from the Long Parliament] in [16]48' to settle the nation 'upon a sure Basis of Peace'.6 The Letter was one of many similar pamphlets calling on Monck early in 1660 to readmit the secluded members to help establish a peaceful settlement after nearly two decades of civil war and changing unstable governments.7 If we believe von Maltzahn, Neville took part in this campaign to bring back into Parliament the moderates that had been barred access to the House at Pride's Purge for fear they would prevent the King's trial. Despite having been an active member of the Rump, so von Maltzahn suggests, Neville was now bent on reconciliation. According to von Maltzahn, the Letter reveals Neville's 'political pragmatism' and is 'consistent with Neville's position' on the eve of the Restoration, while Neville himself 'seems much the likeliest candidate' for its authorship out of 'the known H. N.s of the day'.8

Since von Maltzahn's article was published in 1992, both eminent historians and political scientists have come to accept Neville's authorship of the Letter. Although finding the pamphlet somewhat 'improvised and confused', Blair Worden takes it as part of Neville's 'tactic' to further 'modify' and 'dilute' Harringtonian doctrine in order to be able to accept the inevitable, while Vickie Sullivan tacitly adopts von Maltzahn's argument. …

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