The execution of the king, though a far less violent measure than that of Lord Strafford, is an event of so singular a nature that we cannot wonder that it should have excited more sensation than any other in the annals of England. This exemplary act of substantial justice, as it has been called by some, of enormous wickedness by others, must be considered in two points of view. First, was it not in itself just and necessary? Secondly, was the example of it likely to be salutary or pernicious? In regard to the first of these questions, Mr. Hume, not perhaps intentionally, makes the best justification of it by saying that while Charles lived the projected republic could never be secure. But to justify taking away the life of an individual upon the principle of self-defence, the danger must be not problematical and remote, but evident and immediate. The danger in this instance was not of such a nature, and the imprisonment or even banishment of Charles might have given to the republic such a degree of security as any government ought to be content with. It must be confessed, however, on the other aide, that if the republican government had suffered the king to escape, it would have been an act of justice and generosity wholly unexampled; and to have granted him even his life would have been one among the more rare efforts of virtue. The short interval between the deposal and death of princes is become proverbial, and though there may be some few examples on the other side as far as life is concerned, I doubt whether a single instance can be found where liberty has been granted to a deposed monarch. Among the modes of destroying persons in such a situation, there can be little doubt but that that adopted by Cromwell and his adherents is the least dishonourable. Edward II., Richard II., Henry VI., Edward V., had none of them long survived their deposal, but this was the first instance, in our history at least, where, of such an act, it could be truly said that it was not done in a corner.
As to the second question, whether the advantage to be derived from the example was such as to justify an act of such violence, it appears to me to be a complete solution of it to observe that, with respect to England (and I know not upon what ground we are to set examples for other nations; or, in other words, to take the criminal justice of the world into our hands) it was wholly needless, and therefore unjustifiable, to set one for kings at a time when it was intended the office of king should be abolished, and consequently that no person should be in the situation to make it the rule of his conduct. Besides, the miseries attendant upon a deposed monarch seem to be sufficient to deter any prince, who thinks of consequences, from running the risk of being placed in such a situation; or, if death be the only evil that can deter him, the fate of former tyrants deposed by their subjects would by no means encourage him to hope he could avoid even that catastrophe. As far as we can judge from the event, the example was certainly not very effectual, since both the sons of Charles, though having their father's fate before their eyes, yet feared not to violate the liberties of the people even more than he had attempted to do.
If we consider this question of example in a more extended view, and look to the general effect produced upon the minds of men, it cannot be doubted but the opportunity thus given to Charles to display his firmness and piety has created more respect for his memory than it could otherwise have obtained. Respect and pity for the sufferer on the one hand, and hatred to his enemies on the other, soon produce favour and aversion to their respective causes; and thus, even though it should be admitted (which is doubtful) that some advantage may have been gained to the cause of liberty by the terror of the example operating upon the minds of princes, such advantage is far outweighed by the zeal which admiration for virtue, and pity for sufferings, the best passions of the human heart, have excited in favour of the royal cause. It has been thought dangerous to the morals of mankind, even in fiction and romance, to make us sympathise with characters whose general conduct is blameable; but how much greater must the effect be when in real history our feelings are interested in favour of a monarch with whom, to say the least, his subjects were obliged to contend in arms for their liberty? After all, however, notwithstanding what the more reasonable part of mankind may think upon this question, it is much to be doubted whether this singular proceeding has not as much as any other circumstance, served to raise the character of the English nation in the opinion of Europe in general. He who has read, and still more, he who has heard in conversation discussions upon this subject by foreigners, must have perceived that, even in the minds of those who condemn the act, the impression made by it has been far more that of respect and admiration than that of disgust and horror. The truth is that the guilt of the action - that is to say, the taking away of the life of the king, is what most men in the place of Cromwell and his associates would have incurred; what there is of splendour and of magnanimity in it, I mean the publicity and solemnity of the act, is what few would be capable of displaying. It is a degrading fact to human nature, that even the sending away of the Duke of Gloucester was an instance of generosity almost unexampled in the history of transactions of this nature.