The commencement of this period is marked by exertions of the people, through their representatives in the House of Commons, not only justifiable in their principle, but directed to the properest objects, and in a manner the most judicious. Many of their leaders were greatly versed in ancient as well as modern learning, and were even enthusiastically attached to the great names of antiquity; but they never conceived the wild project of assimilating the government of England to that of Athens, of Sparta, or of Rome. They were content with applying to the English constitution, and to the English laws, the spirit of liberty which had animated and rendered illustrious the ancient republics. Their first object was to obtain redress of past grievances, with a proper regard to the individuals who had suffered; the next, to prevent the recurrence of such grievances by the abolition of tyrannical tribunals acting upon arbitrary maxims in criminal proceedings, and most improperly denominated courts of justice. They then proceeded to establish that fundamental principle of all free government, the preserving of the purse to the people and their representatives. And though there may be more difference of opinion upon their proposed regulations in regard to the militia, yet surely, when a contest was to be foreseen, they could not, consistently with prudence, leave the power of the sword altogether in the hands of an adverse party.
The prosecution of Lord Strafford, or rather, the manner in which it was carried on, is less justifiable. He was, doubtless, a great delinquent, and well deserved the severest punishment; but nothing short of a clearly proved case of self-defence can justify, or even excuse, a departure from the sacred rules of criminal justice. For it can rarely indeed happen that the mischief to be apprehended from suffering any criminal, however guilty, to escape, can be equal to that resulting from the violation of those rules to which the innocent owe the security of all that is dear to them. If such cases have existed they must have been in instances where trial has been wholly out of the question, as in that of Caesar and other tyrants; but when a man is once in a situation to be tried, and his person in the power of his accusers and his judges, he can no longer be formidable in that degree which alone can justify (if anything can) the violation of the substantial rules of criminal proceedings.
At the breaking out of the Civil War, so intemperately denominated a rebellion by Lord Clarendon and other Tory writers, the material question appears to me to be, whether or not sufficient attempts were made by the Parliament and their leaders to avoid bringing affairs to such a decision? That, according to the general principles of morality, they had justice on their side cannot fairly be doubted; but did they sufficiently attend to that great dictum of Tully in questions of civil dissension, wherein he declares his preference of even an unfair peace to the most just war? Did they sufficiently weigh the dangers that might ensue even from victory; dangers, in such cases, little less formidable to the cause of liberty than those which might follow a defeat? Did they consider that it is not peculiar to the followers of Pompey, and the civil wars of Rome, that the event to be looked for is, as the same Tully describes it, in case of defeat - proscription; in that of victory - servitude? Is the failure of the negotiation when the king was in the Isle of Wight to be imputed to the suspicions justly entertained of his sincerity, or to the ambition of the parliamentary leaders? If the insincerity of the king was the real cause, ought not the mischief to be apprehended from his insincerity rather to have been guarded against by treaty than alleged as a pretence for breaking off the negotiation? Sad, indeed, will be the condition of the world if we are never to make peace with an adverse party whose sincerity we have reason to suspect. Even just grounds for such suspicions will but too often occur, and when such fail, the proneness of man to impute evil qualities, as well as evil designs, to his enemies, will suggest false ones. In the present case the suspicion of insincerity was, it is true, so just, as to amount to a moral certainty. The example of the petition of right was a satisfactory proof that the king made no point of adhering to concessions which he considered as extorted from him; and a philosophical historian, writing above a century after the time, can deem the pretended hard usage Charles met with as a sufficient excuse for his breaking his faith in the first instance, much more must that prince himself, with all his prejudices and notions of his divine right, have thought it justifiable to retract concessions, which to him, no doubt, appeared far more unreasonable than the petition of right, and which, with much more colour, he might consider as extorted. These considerations were probably the cause why the Parliament so long delayed their determination of accepting the king's offer as a basis for treaty; but, unfortunately, they had delayed so long that when at last they adopted it they found themselves without power to carry it into execution. The army having now ceased to be the servants, had become the masters of the Parliament, and, being entirely influenced by Cromwell, gave a commencement to what may, properly speaking, be called a new reign. The subsequent measures, therefore, the execution of the king, as well as others, are not to be considered as acts of the Parliament, but of Cromwell; and great and respectable as are the names of some who sat in the high court, they must be regarded, in this instance, rather as ministers of that usurper than as acting from themselves.