Introduction to the
Writings
of
Marchamont Nedham
by Jon Roland

Marchamont Nedham was what we would today call a newspaper columnist, a pundit of 17th century England. He was not a scholar, originator, or man of constant convictions, but served as a popularizer of the prevailing political views of whoever was in power at the moment, not unlike pundits of our own time. However, he was widely read by ordinary people, and while we do not read his works as milestones in political philosophy, they do give us an insight into what literate Englishmen of the time knew and thought. Nedham's justification for his defense of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell in The Case of the Commonwealth of England is acquiescence to power rather than devotion to right, but it does reveal the main positions of the Cromwellian regime. Nedham informed the political thinking of his generation, and thereby served the development of historical ideas despite himself.

In The Excellencie of a Free State Nedham even espouses some of the principle views of the leveller movement, which opposed Cromwell after initially supporting him, while disparaging tyrannical abuses as "levelling".

It should be noted that, although Thomas Hobbes had named and advanced the social contract 5 years previously in his Leviathan (1651), Nedham in The Excellencie of a Free State uses the term compact, and does not cite Hobbes. His concept is an agreement among the people that creates a society, not an agreement between a ruler and the people, as contemplated in the covenant model, advanced by Johannes Althusius in Politica (1614) and Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex (1644). Since Nedham was a systematizer rather than an originator, we can presume the term social contract or compact was already in the air during this period, as was his formula "life, liberty and property", advanced later in 1690 by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, and that Hobbes and Locke were less original than reflective of the general thought of their era. Of course, the essential idea of the social contract goes back to the ancient Greek sophists like Protagoras, to Plato is his Republic, to Aristotle in his Politics, and to the Roman jurist Cicero, in De Officiis, but those philosophers never named their concept, and in philosophy, as in any other field, sometimes giving an idea a good name is the key to advancing it.

These essays also indicate how some of the aspirations of some supporters of the Cromwellian regime exceeded what that regime was prepared to implement, and the way they failed to secure more lasting reforms. A missed opportunity, perhaps, but had the effort succeeded, the British government of its colonies in North America might have been sufficiently enlightened to have made the American War of Independence unnecessary, and mankind might have never taken the further steps that emerged as the Constitution for the United States. Most of the progress in human affairs is a response to adversity. Without Evil to nurture it, Good cannot attain itself.


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