The English Revolution and the History of Majority Rule

In our latest blog we’re returning to the ‘Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700’ project. Since autumn 2021, we have been working with the University of Oxford and the Centre for Intellectual History at the University of Oxford to put together series of blogs that explore European Parliamentary Culture. The series is focused on the Early Modern period – roughly 1500-1700 – but they have ranged more widely, seeking to bring in some scholars of the more recent past to provide different perspectives and insights that might stimulate new thinking. We’re reposting some of the blogs here, with thanks to the CIH and to our colleagues who have commissioned, edited and authored the blogs. To find out more about the exciting programme of work and conferences over the coming year, head to the CIH website.

This blog was originally posted on 13 December, written by William J. Bulman, Professor of History, Lehigh University.

Over 120 years ago the legal historian F.W. Maitland remarked that ‘one of the great books that remain to be written is The History of the Majority.’ He also realized why this book had not yet been written. ‘Our habit of treating the voice of the majority as equivalent to the voice of an all is so deeply engrained,’ he wrote, that we ‘hardly think that it has a history. But a history it has.’ Today national, elected representatives in democracies make important decisions by enumerated majority vote all over the globe, and we still make little of it. This way of deciding together is in a sense merely a procedure. But it is also the defining feature of these political systems. It is the way democracies decide. By contrast, prior to the modern era, as Maitland seemed to realize, humans mostly made important decisions in national, representative bodies by forging consensus. Conflict was often present, of course, but it was ultimately suppressed prior to the moment of decision.

Arguably the crucial episode in the turn from consensus decision-making to majority rule as a global standard—at least in popular, national, representative bodies—occurred in England during late 1642 and early 1643. As the English people met each other on battlefields, their representatives in the House of Commons were waging civil war by other means. The House of Commons had found itself paralyzed by the excruciating choice between continued bloodshed and significant concessions in their peace negotiations with Charles I. Under these conditions, the members of Parliament grudgingly and repeatedly decided to accept persistent disagreement instead of working to eliminate it. They abandoned their cherished tradition of consensual decision-making and began to resort repeatedly to enumerated majority votes.

Wenceslaus Hollar, broadside engraving of the trial of the Earl of Strafford, 1641, British Library.

This transformation was structured by the well-known obsession with status that characterized the elites of early modern Europe. Consensual decisions had always been deeply valued in the Commons because they were taken to be essential to the honor of the House, its members, the Parliament, and the monarchy. In contrast, the status implications of divisions (the apt English term for enumerated votes in the Commons) were harrowing. They signified disunity, corruption, untruth, and ultimately, weakness. Yet just a few months after the outbreak of the Civil War, members of Parliament were regularly forced to make particular decisions whose stakes with regard to status clearly trumped the ordinary status considerations built into every question put to them. When two factions found themselves at odds with each other in such situations, they were willing to resort to majority votes to end the standoff. By the spring of 1643, the Commons was resorting to divisions as often as a modern legislature. Enumerated majority votes had been held prior to that moment, of course, in England and elsewhere. But arguably, not since antiquity had they been held with frequency by a popular, national assembly. As the House resorted again and again to protecting its status in emergencies by dividing, Parliament’s status became detached from the achievement of consensus and attached to its ability to repel external threats to its authority. Accordingly, aggressively partisan tactics no longer seemed so dishonourable.

This revolution in practice turned out to be a permanent one, outliving England’s mid-century constitutional revolution and indeed becoming institutionalized shortly following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660…

To continue reading this blog on the University of Oxford Centre for Intellectual History’s website, click here…

William J. Bulman 

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