(I am going to spend the next few weeks examining lessons about civic engagement and politics that can be learned from the mistakes or successes of historical figures. Today I examine a lesson from the life of Oliver Cromwell).
I have always been fascinated by Oliver Cromwell. I do not mean this as an endorsement of the controversial figure, but examining his life can give valuable insights into our own political circumstance. The man had seen the injustices that could be perpetrated by an absolute monarch. He led armies against Charles I and put an end to his tyrannical rule by placing authority in the hands of Parliament. Our modern sensibilities would have viewed this as a change for the better, but Cromwell found that the representatives of the people were just as greedy and exploitative as the king, but without the wisdom of years of leadership. Thus, Cromwell deposed the Parliament as well and in one of history’s more tragic ironies, ruled as a dictator himself as a safeguard against dictatorship.
Cromwell’s tragic hypocrisy serves as a reminder for our nation today. Cromwell’s problem is so haunting because it is timeless: How can the tyranny of the individual be avoided without imposing the tyranny of the many? There is hope, however. We are currently undergoing a long-term sociological experiment to ascertain whether or not Cromwell’s problem has an answer. I write this post on Memorial Day, a day where we remember the valiant sacrifices of those who gave their lives so that we could enjoy the freedoms protected by our constitution. After 227 years (a world record for written constitutions) it seems that the United States may have uncovered the answer. There are three ways in which the Constitution attempts to answer Cromwell’s problem:
The Constitution answers Cromwell’s problem because it is not human. The Constitution has no will or desire, yet we treat it like a king. The highest offices in the land have no legal power that the Constitution does not give them and the relationships between governmental bodies are regulated by it, yet it does not have special interests or ulterior motives.
The Constitution answers Cromwell’s problem because it is stable. It is very hard to amend the Constitution. It is hard enough that it has only been done twenty-seven times, and most of the amendments can be read more as clarifications. Kings can betray and democracy can be fickle, but the Constitution remains semi-static over centuries.
The Constitution answers Cromwell’s problem because it emphasizes the rights of the individual. It is not enough merely to have a constitution, it is also important to have a good one. The United States’s constitution may not have motivations, but it prioritizes the restraint of power over the exercise thereof. This gives the Constitution its special ability to protect citizens. Romans may have appealed to Caesar, but Americans appeal to the Constitution, and this protects us.
The answer to Cromwell’s problem, however, is not something that can exist in a vacuum. After all, our Constitution does not actually exist as a force. The Constitution only exists insofar as we allow it to exist and continue to preserve it. Therefore I propose that there are three duties that we ought to fulfill if we want to continue to answer Cromwell’s problem:
The first duty is to be patient. One of my personal heroes is John Brown (I will write about him next week) but I openly acknowledge that John Brown was wrong in his attempt to overthrow the oppression he saw through revolution. Brown’s sin was impatience. Our Constitution only exists because we allow it to continue to exist, even when it allows oppression and evils to persist. The patience we must show the Constitution can be as obvious as not overthrowing it out of despair and not redefining it out of conviction. If the system is not respected for what it is, it ceases to exist. Therefore we must be patient with the Constitution as it is, not as we wish it were.
The second duty is to be aware of the value of the Constitution. Our children must understand that the Constitution is worth fighting for and preserving. Our politicians must understand that the limits of the Constitution are worth respecting. Our judges must understand that the words of the Constitution cannot be reinterpreted without all of its words losing meaning. We all must understand that true patriotism will defend the Constitution first and the institutions it preserves second.
The third duty is to honor those who have defended the Constitution in ages past. Every soldier who has died to defend the Constitution has died in some small way to protect us from the horrors of tyranny. It is easy in our cynical society to mock the idea that every soldier that has died has done so to protect our freedoms, but in some way it is true, because the Constitution protects our freedom, not just from foreign tyrants, but most importantly from potential tyranny at home. The greatest protection that the Constitution provides is protection from ourselves. We must honor those who have served as judges because they are in closest proximity to our Constitution and it is they who protect its words. We must honor public servants who show respect for the limits placed upon them by the Constitution, even when it would be easier to achieve their goals by abusing them.
These duties may help us complete our experiment, and we should rejoice that in the centuries following the ratification of our Constitution, many other nations have joined us in ratifying binding Constitutions to guard against tyranny (with varying degrees of success). If God wills it, perhaps no one will again have to face the horrible problem that caused Cromwell to take up hypocritical dictatorship. I pray that we have indeed answered the question and that our Constitution will prevent tyranny in the future as well as the past, but I fear that the success of our solution depends on the willingness of the people to continue to respect and defend our Constitution.