Jan 5, 2019
Radical Weirdness in the English Civil Wars
Caleb Brown interviews Anthony Comegna about the English Civil Wars and high weirdness in the primitive libertarian tradition.
This is a transcript of a recent episode of the Cato Daily Podcast.
Caleb Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Wednesday, December 26, 2018. I’m Caleb Brown. If history is any guide, some of the greatest contributions we can name were developed and advanced by marginal groups. Anthony Comegna is Assistant Editor for Intellectual History at Libertarianism.org. We spoke about the English Civil War and how on both sides of the Atlantic, marginalized people had the bravery and audacity to help us all achieve a greater understanding of freedom.
One of the first confrontations I had about history was—you know, I spoke recently with Michael Douma about Creative Historical Thinking and What is Classical Liberal History? and at least in the early period of the United States or just prior to the United States existing, obviously there were a lot of Federalist writings. But it was not until I came to study classical liberalism more specifically that I realized “Oh right! There’s this other giant catalog of antifederalist writings,” people who thought in many ways that a small government, small central federal government, was just too big and just too powerful. And once you understand that the way that history has been presented to you probably isn’t fundamentally fair to the groups who (in a sense) lost, that it’s really easy to just sort of wipe away the contributions of those people to the great things that we appreciate about the world today. In a book that you’re working on, you take us back to the 1600s, groups of people who were marginal and yet had enormous contributions.
Anthony Comegna: Yeah, so we’re working on another one of our “Reader” volumes on the English Revolution, and I realized while I was going through it that it’s more or less a volume that collects some of the best documents from what’s called the English Dissenting traditions, and during the time of the English Civil Wars—so, say from about 1639 depending on your dating to the early 1660s, again depending on your dating—when the English overthrew their king and they established Parliamentary supremacy, they put Oliver Cromwell up as so-called “Lord Protector” (which was in effect a replacement of the king with the consent of Parliament), and that was a failure and collapsed after Cromwell died and the Parliament broke down and reinvited King Charles II back to the throne after they killed his father. So that’s the long and the short story of the English Civil Wars. Now, between say that 20-30 year period there is an explosion of different minority religious factions, especially, these “Dissenting traditions.” And each one of them is relatively small, some of them grow to pretty large movements, others remain very, very tiny; but each one of them has some sort of profound impact on their communities and on the country at large, and then through the Revolution, the entire Atlantic world and everywhere the British Empire touched soil, some of these dissenting traditions took root there.
Caleb Brown: Were these all religious? I can imagine some of them were purely rights-based, or appreciating that the king was not recognizing some view of rights.
Anthony Comegna: I’d say they grew out of—Parts of it were more strictly political, like let’s say the Levelers…
Caleb Brown: Which I think that some libertarians would be pretty familiar with the Levelers.
Anthony Comegna: Yeah, we very often hear people say that they’re the first good representation of modern libertarianism—obviously not the same thing as our libertarianism today, but you read the Levelers and you definitely feel like these are our people. In a way that you don’t necessarily see that in other groups further back.
Caleb Brown: And it’s almost a Lockean view of rights?
Anthony Comegna: Uh, kind of. The Levelers are, I mean, they’re a little different. They do anticipate a lot of what John Locke says, but so did a lot of other people. I mean, Locke in his way was not very original—He was looking around at the things that were already going on in the New World and seeing how these people were already developing their societies from the “State of Nature” and he just took the ideas from people who were already practicing them.
Caleb Brown: So there’s a whole list of these different groups of people. Can you tell me about the overlap in terms of what they were advocating? Because I know Quakers played some role here a little later, but what were some of the big areas where these people essentially all agreed?
Anthony Comegna: Well, so before we talk about their agreements, let me just go over—If you look at Wikipedia, here’s the list they give of all the different dissenting traditions (and this is not at all exhaustive—there are a lot more than this): Anabaptists, Barrowists, Behmenists, Brownists, Diggers, Enthusiasts, Familists, Fifth Monarchists, Grindletonians, Levelers, Muggletonians, Puritans, Philadelphians, Quakers, Ranters, Sabbatarians, and Seekers. Like I said, there are a lot more and they’re each distinctive in their own ways. But, the thing that largely united them was what’s called antinomianism. And antinomianism, as one of my professors said, is “a heresy within a heresy.” So, Protestantism is already a heresy so far as the Catholic Church is concerned, right? And then within Protestantism there’s this other heresy called antinomianism from the Greek words for something like “against laws.” Antinomians thought that the Catholics had religion all wrong because they believed in what’s called a “Doctrine of Works,”—that to fulfil your covenant with God you had to perform good works here on Earth, including the sacriments of the Church. And once you’ve performed enough good works, you can tick off all the boxes to get into Heaven. Protestants were supposed to believe in what’s called the “Doctrine of Faith” going back to Augustine and of course Martin Luther, that all you really need for salvation was faith (“Salvation through faith alone” is another phrase that you’ll hear). And the antinomians took this to the logical extreme that human beings, we don’t actually have to follow man-made laws. All we have to do is have faith in God and follow our own moral intuitions and that’s enough for salvation—and since salvation is really all that matters (the health and wellbeing of your eternal soul) you don’t have to follow any laws made here on Earth that seem to contradict God’s will.
Caleb Brown: So it’s a “render unto Caesar” kind of thing.
Anthony Comegna: Um, no!—It’s a “Screw off, Caesar!” And in colonial Massachusetts, this is what got Anne Hutchinson expelled from the colony. She started saying that people don’t have to sign up for compulsory militia service to fight land-grabbing wars against the Indians and exterminate these people. They don’t have to do that if they don’t want to. They can ignore the colony’s laws, ignore the governor. And so the governor rounded her up, put her on trial, and shipped her out of the colony. They started banishing antinomians left and right and they all went to Rhode Island. And as I like to tell students, it’s not as though Rhode Island is a giant smoking hole in the ground. It’s actually a pretty good basis for society to have this antinomian idea that we simply have to treat each other right because that is what God’s commanding us in our hearts.
Caleb Brown: So the way that I understand a lot of Christians in modern American operate, they view government as legitimate in the eyes of God. And that seems to go directly against this antinomian view.
Anthony Comegna: Yeah, the antinomian view is that human institutions are only legitimate in your, direct, individual connection to God says that they are. And they can’t compel you against your will to do anything that your moral intuition says is wrong.
Caleb Brown: So logically, I’m thinking oh I hear a lot of echoes of my people—the Quakers—in that particular view that your relationship to God is the most important thing and that everything else is at best secondary.
Anthony Comegna: Imagine—Okay, so here’s the scene in the English Civil Wars. The king and the Parliament start out fighting each other, it’s basically about money, it’s about power between the two. The Parliament has the upper hand. They capture the king outside of London. He’s a prisoner. The Parliament meets at a small town called Putney outside of London, there’s a meeting of the New Model Army, Cromwell and his grandees, his leaders in the Parliament and the New Model Army. And the Army elects its own officers called the Agitators to present the average rank-and-file serviceman’s opinions before the Parliament, right? So the people who become known as the Levelers elect these Agitators from the ranks of the New Model Army…
Caleb Brown: First, let’s take a moment and appreciate the concept of electing “Agitators.”
Anthony Comegna: Yeah, and the Levelers—some people look at them as the first proper political party. And they essentially emerged from the ranks of the New Model Army and people in Parliament who held to this antinomian idea. So the Levelers go up to Cromwell and, right to his face at the debates at Putney, tell him that we want to destroy the House of Lords and get rid of their powers and privileges, we want to elevate the House of Commons, we want to extend suffrage to many more people, we want to break down the great estates that were handed down to the aristocracy from William the Bastard, the Norman pirate who invaded England and set up his own throne there, and all these lands claims are illegitimate so we need to revise our history, we need to revise our laws, we need to go back and recover all of these ancient liberties that we’ve lost to the modern state in the last six hundred years. That was their argument and it was extraordinarily powerful and it really spoke to people, but it was very dangerous. And so Parliament, the Cromwellians really crack down. They murder several of the Levelers’ leaders (including Colonel Rainsborough, who spoke for them the most at Putney) and a lot of the Levelers disperse into some of these other reform movements, including Quakerism. You have people like Gerrard Winstanley, who was one of the Diggers or the “True Levelers,” who were sort of communistic in their methods, but you have all these Levelers with this antinomian idea who are dispersed to find themselves as members of different movements, right? Because they can’t come together like they were after Parliament turns against them. So you see people doing what’s called “Seeking.” Seekers would go out into the street like Diogenes of Sinope, or something in ancient Greece who would walk around with a lantern looking for an honest man in Greece—they would do the same thing and go out in the street and seek for honest Christians. And they would write these bizarre tracts like this pamphlet called Tyranipocrit Discovered by this anonymous author who is talking about how the Devil marries Tyranny and Hypocrisy to worldly princes to create the tyrannies that rule over us. And he calls princes the children of Tyranny and Hypocrisy. And then you have the Ranters—people like Abiezer Coppe, who wrote another pamphlet called the Fiery, Flying Roll. And he’s basically just yelling at everyone. Yelling at everyone who will listen, at everyone who will read, and telling them what’s wrong with them and what’s right about the people that they criticize. So, in both of these tracts, you have this push and pull between what (I think it’s in Tyrannipocrit, Discovered)—he talks about “white devils” and “black devils.” Black devils are people like gamblers and thieves, and drunks, and drug addicts, and prostitutes, sex workers, people who commit regular sins that we think of as sins. And then there are the “white devils,” who do all that stuff, too, but lie about it and pretend moral supremacy and act like they should have the right to rule over the rest of us and criticize our normal “black sinning” behavior that everyone does.
Caleb Brown: Like Bill Cosby writing a book about marriage.
Anthony Comegna: Yeah, exactly! There are all sorts of modern day examples that you could pull out of these white devils, but they’re everywhere. And I don’t mean to sound like Farrakhan here, but the point is that everyone is a black devil. We’re all sinners! And so you should do what Jesus told us to do and spend time with the sinners, get to know them, understand their troubles, their plights, and rant about the death and destruction of the ruling class who refuses to address the needs of the people.
Caleb Brown: So you are talking about all these groups that existed within a time period where—was there a vacuum in government with respect to these groups’ ability to effectively connect with one another, and preach whatever they were preaching, or engage in the kinds of activities that seem extremely anti-government?
Anthony Comegna: Yeah, the Revolution—like historian Christopher Hill (a Marxist historian, but a very brilliant historian), he wrote about it as the “world turned upside down,” and people at the time recognized it as such. They sang songs about it, how everything was changing and people from below had chances that they’d never had before to change the world. And to really make it stick, too. You know, that’s the great thing about each one of these little groups. Everything that they published, it stuck. It stuck around. And there were censorship laws, and there were boards who were supposed to check these sorts of things, and these people got thrown in prison, and they got tortured for their beliefs, too. But their printed materials survive. You know, they got out there and they stuck around and they changed the landscape for good.
Caleb Brown: Where do we see echoes of this either today, or in the 18th and 19th centuries?
Anthony Comegna: Yeah, the echoes are all over. So like I said, this was really an Atlantic-wide thing. The fact that it was in the middle of the Revolution meant that these people were in the New Model Army, they’re in the Navy, they’re talking to working people everywhere, this is a highly interconnected world already at this time (in the 1640s), the colonies are developing very quickly and quickly producing much, much more money, slavery is becoming entrenched and much more important, the slave trade is much more important, and these ideas carry literally all over the planet with these people as they’re going to take part in one part or other of the military conflict, or the necessary trade going on, or the colonization and settlement afterward.
Caleb Brown: So just by virtue of the way the world was changing at this time on both sides of the Atlantic, there are opportunities to spread ideas that—Was there more fertile ground, relatively speaking, for these kinds of ideas to take root?
Anthony Comegna: Yeah, absolutely. And the power vacuum is everywhere. Especially the political history of the colonies during the Revolution is a mess, because you have Royalist governors in some colonies who refuse to leave, and Parliament send the Navy, and they have to capitulate, and the Parliamentary guy gets put in, and then the Royalist forces take the upper hand and they regroup, and they send back their guy—I mean, it’s a mess, it’s a mess. And all along the way, people on the margins can actually build something for once because the ruling classes are distracted killing each other. People are voicing these new ideas without nearly as much official opposition as they were used to, or official oversight. It was still there, and the ruling classes did as much as they could to try to force some of this down, but they couldn’t. So, for example, after Charles II is invited back to the throne in 1660, he exiles all sorts of these different dissenters, and veterans of the New Model Army, and Cromwellian supporters. He exiles them to places like Virginia. So a lot of them go to Virginia and they’re indentured servants or they’re poor, landless people. They end up conspiring with African slaves in Gloucester County, Virginia in what’s called “The Servant’s Plot,” or the Gloucester County Rebellion of 1663. Their plan was to steal from local military sources war drums and go across the countryside raising the sound of war drums. And now, that’s significant because it shows that they’re thinking about the Africans. They want the Africans of the colony to join with them. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, everybody knows what a war drum means. And everybody in the position of being a subservient Virginian would know to rise up. That’s the moment to take out your master, to take out the landlord, to go to the city square and join everybody else. Now they were betrayed by one of their number, a man named Birkenhead betrayed them for a sum of money and the colony named a holiday after him. So the Servant’s Plot failed but this same pattern continued in Virginia a decade later in Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). It was much the same: indentured servants, poor landless people—in this case, it was Royalists behind Bacon, but they were on the outs again by that point—and again they joined with African slaves. And the antinomian idea remains at the heart of New England politics for a long time, too. And not to mention, English politics itself is riddled with these questions of theology and the political debates they bring up. I mean, if your religion tells you that you really, absolutely don’t have to follow man-made laws, then no kind of government can really stand against that for long, nor can they tolerate it.
Caleb Brown: We try to get to lessons from these historical episodes. Is there a clear lesson here? If I were to take what you’ve just told me and try to boil it down, I would say that for libertarians, at least, the lesson ought to be to foster a more radical level of tolerance for weirdos.
Anthony Comegna: [laughing] Yeah! Maybe foster some radical weirdness in yourself! At the very least, I think it’s useful to study these examples and understand these very strange and very different people. I mean, you read some of these things talking about Revelations and how slave-masters are the Beast’s armies on Earth, and they’re going through the Book of Revelations (which is a wild ride in itself) and these Quakers are breaking it down and applying it to their own era, and you think “My God! I hear this stuff all the time on right-wing talk radio from callers talking about how we’re in the end times.” And look, we are in a revolutionary period ourselves and there’s no doubt that the world 20-30 years from now will be entirely different from the one we know now, and I think that in times like this it’s especially important that we get a little weird, and we get a little radical, and little wild, and at the very least, we try to take time and understand—really understand—and maybe even sympathize with the views of the most marginalized people in our society. Because they will be the ones who have the most to say and who will have the most at stake when the world swiftly changes.