"Commonwealth Men" were those who held a well-defined set of political beliefs about the importance of liberty and the need for people to defend their rights against excessive government power. Their ideas, which had taken shape in England, became dominant in the colonies by the mid-eighteenth century, and inspired Americans to resist the Stamp Act and other forms of British taxation. The beliefs of the Commonwealth Men eventually led the colonists into revolution; they also influenced the framers of the Constitution and the political culture of the new nation. Commonwealth Men were often referred to as "Real Whigs," and their political ideas came to be known as "republicanism."
origins and principles of commonwealth thought
Commonwealth political ideas originated in England. Twice in the seventeenth century the English had deposed kings who were threatening to take absolute power at the expense of the people's rights. During these times of turmoil, political philosophers such as James Harrington and John Locke asserted that the proper role of government was to protect the liberty and property of its subjects. This idea lay at the heart of Commonwealth thought.
Calm returned to Great Britain in the eighteenth century, and Britons took pride in being the freest, best-governed nation on earth. They attributed this achievement to their constitution. In most countries, the monarch was absolutely supreme, but the British constitution had created a "mixed" government in which the king or queen, the aristocracy (through the House of Lords), and the people (through the House of Commons) all had clearly defined rights. In theory, if one of the branches of government became too powerful, or if two of them cooperated to try to dominate the nation, one or both of the others had the ability to check them and preserve the rights of all.
If most Britons were satisfied that the constitutional system was working well, events in the 1720s aroused the suspicions of the Commonwealth Men, who were only a small group on the fringes of British politics. The administration of Robert Walpole, the king's chief minister, was run by a system in which Walpole used control of parliamentary elections, the awarding of government contracts, and other means of influence to manipulate Parliament. Few Britons were worried by Walpole's practices, since the government ran smoothly. But the Commonwealth Men saw Walpole as a corrupt minister whose actions violated the constitution and endangered people's rights.
Commonwealth Men believed that liberty and power were in constant conflict, and that those holding power would always seek to expand it at the expense of liberty. Commonwealth writers outlined a series of steps that corrupt political leaders would employ to enlarge their power. These leaders, who were likely to be among the king's ministers, would first lead the nation into costly wars. The need to pay the cost of these wars would justify higher taxes, which would give the ministers more control over people's property. Through bribery and favoritism, the legislature would be neutralized or drawn into the conspirators' service. The people would be allowed to indulge in idleness and luxury, until their virtue was lost and they would either be blinded to the threat or no longer willing to defend their liberty. Then the conspirators would seize absolute power with the help of a professional army. The people would lose their political rights as well as control over their property, so that they would be no better off than the serfs and peasants in continental Europe. Commonwealth writers described this condition as a state of slavery.
According to Commonwealth principles, there were only two ways to prevent such a conspiracy from succeeding. Both depended on the people maintaining their virtue and keeping careful watch over their leaders to detect any threat to liberty. When the threat was detected, people could warn the king, who was believed to be incorruptible, so that he could remove the treacherous ministers and restore the constitutional balance. But if the king proved unwilling or unable to act, it was up to the people themselves to resist, by peaceful means if possible, but by force if necessary.
In an effort to warn the public about Walpole's dangerous practices, Commonwealth spokespeople such as John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and Bishop Benjamin Hoadly produced numerous books, pamphlets, and sermons in which they explained their political views. But Britons paid little attention to these writings; most of the literature produced by the Commonwealth Men was sent to America, where the colonists generally accepted and adopted their ideas.
commonwealth ideas and the american revolution
When the British government broke with tradition and imposed direct taxation on the colonists in 1765 in the form of the Stamp Act, Americans familiar with Commonwealth ideas saw the new policy as the first step in a conspiracy to deprive them of their liberty. Believing it their duty to oppose this threat, the colonists resisted the Stamp Act, justifying their actions in pamphlets and sermons that explained both the act and their opposition to it in terms of Commonwealth thought. When repeal of the Stamp Act was followed by new taxes such as the Townshend Acts, Americans continued to justify their opposition with appeals to Commonwealth principles. By 1775 the colonists were convinced that only force could protect their liberties, and in accordance with the Commonwealth prescription, took up arms against the British government.
Commonwealth ideas continued to influence Americans during and after the Revolution. The Articles of Confederation, adopted as the form of government during the war, were framed according to Commonwealth principles. Power was vested in the Congress, the president had little authority, and careful watch was kept over the army. Most of the state constitutions adopted at the start of the Revolution followed a similar pattern.
The U.S. Constitution also incorporated many Commonwealth principles, though some were modified by the lessons learned during the Revolution. The framers, recalling how difficult it had been for the Confederation Congress to agree on and carry out policy, created a stronger executive. But they carefully crafted a system of checks and balances between the presidency, Congress, and the judiciary to prevent any branch of government from becoming too powerful, or falling under the control of a corrupt faction. In addition, the framers provided for a distribution of power between the federal and state governments, and placed the military under civilian control. Later, the Bill of Rights was added to guarantee specific liberties to the people. In these and other aspects, the new nation and its Constitution reflected the important influence of the Commonwealth Men.
Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.