Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658)

Traditionally there was a clear line between civil and criminal law. The civil law, for example, contracts, property, and torts, sought to balance private rights and to restore wronged parties to their rightful positions. The criminal law, on the other hand, was primarily a way for society in general to express its outrage at harmful conduct: it was a way to enforce deeply held norms. Thus, the traditional so-called common law crimes included homicide, rape, arson, and theft. Thus, the law properly recognizing the difference between bad conduct, for example, breach of contract, and conduct that would be criminal, for example, rape. While the theories underlying the need for criminal and civil law overlapped somewhat, in practice there were clear legal differences. One, for example, could be held civilly liable for negligent conduct (or for the conduct of subordinates). But to be held criminally liable, one had to act deliberately, recklessly, or wantonly. There were good reasons for the difference. Whereas one held civilly liable would lose money, a person found criminally liable would lose his freedom and civil rights. Colloquially, there is a difference between the shame of being sued and the shame of having a criminal record. Moreover, almost everyone in a civilized society knows that murder is wrong. But civil issues such as whether property has been adversely possessed, or whether a prescriptive easement exists, are usually more complex. The demarcation between civil and criminal misconduct ensured that those who harmed the rights of others would pay for the harm caused but that they would not have the force of the criminal law brought down on them. Today that has changed: the line is blurred. Oliver Cromwell, soldier and statesman, Lord Protector of England in the 1650s, was born in 1599, into a lower middle class family. For the first forty years of his life he was a farmer (1599–1640), followed by twelve years as a member of Parliament and a senior military officer (1640–1652), and then five years as Lord Protector of England (1653–1658).

Cromwell believed in Providence and the role of God in bringing about a holy Commonwealth. As God’s instrument to lead his people, his providentialism led him to reject forms of church government, institutions, and rituals. His religion was biblical and Christocentric. He supported unity among various religious groups of the godly nation and hoped that it would lead to increased liberty of conscience. His hope for toleration for various denominations did not succeed because of controversies among the various protestant sects, whereas his later parliaments also refused to provide for full liberty of conscience. John Morrill concludes that ‘‘Cromwell’s achievements as a soldier are great but unfashionable; as religious libertarian great but easily mis-stated; as a statesman inevitably stunted.’’ (Morrill, ‘‘Cromwell, Oliver.’’ Oxford DNB. p. 352).

His support for religious liberty did not extend after his death, for more than a generation the Church of England reestablished itself in England until 1689, when a Toleration Act, rather than comprehension, passed Parliament and created an ‘‘established’’ rather than a ‘‘national’’ state church and gave dissenters, under some state restrictions, the ability to practice their religion.

JOEL FISHMAN

References and Further Reading

  • Cromwell, Oliver. The Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. With an Introduction, Notes and a Sketch of his Life by Wilbur Cortez Abbott, with the assistance of Catherine D. Crane. Published: Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1937–1947. 4 v.
  • Morrill, John. ‘‘Cromwell, Oliver.’’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 14. 328–353. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • ———, ed. Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. London: Longman, 1990.
  • Roots, Ivan, ed. Cromwell, A Profile. New York, Hill and Wang, 1973.

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