Lessons from a Political Martyr

If politics is anything, it is contentious. So long as men have opinions, they shall defend them, even with fervor at times. But contention is not sedition, and as Democrats’ calls to impeach President Trump intensify, it would appear that American politics has moved toward the latter. Both parties believe the other has betrayed its country. Those who once were rivals now are denounced as traitors. He that gathers not is himself scattered.

Where this malice might lead no one knows. But if history is any guide, vindictive politics tend to escalate quickly and end well for no one, especially when guilt matters more than truth. Just ask Thomas Wentworth, the 1st Earl of Strafford.

Strafford was an English noble and political figure in the decade prior to the English Civil Wars. King Charles I raised Strafford to the peerage in 1628 and then appointed him as Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1633. As Lord Deputy, Strafford zealously pursued the crown’s interests, something for which he would earn the ire of Charles’ many enemies in Parliament.

Charles recalled Strafford to England in 1639 when war broke out against Scotland; and on Strafford’s advice, Charles decided to invade Scotland, giving Strafford command of the army. Parliament, however, refused to grant Charles what they considered to be exorbitant war subsidies. In response, Charles prorogued the session in May 1640, and instead told Strafford to raise money through forced loans. But before Strafford could collect sufficient funds, he fell ill, halting all efforts.

When a newly-convened Parliament assembled at Westminster in November 1640, many parliamentary radicals, led by John Pym, saw an opportunity to take down their enemy Strafford, and thereby weaken Charles’ position, which was their ultimate goal. Therefore, in January 1641, they impeached Strafford for treason. From the start, it was clear that Strafford was not to receive a fair trial. He was deprived of legal counsel, not informed of the particular charges against him, and forbidden to call witnesses in his defense. Most egregiously, many of the prosecution’s witnesses had themselves been previously convicted of conspiracy against both the king and Strafford. Nevertheless, Strafford dismantled the prosecution’s arguments, showing how the charges against him often contradicted themselves.

Late in the trial, Pym surreptitiously acquired notes of a privy council meeting written by Sir Henry Vane. Vane’s notes claimed that Strafford told Charles, “You have an army in Ireland you may employ here to reduce this kingdom.” In his testimony, Vane insisted that the phrase “this kingdom” meant England, though the context of the meeting indicated Scotland. Strafford vehemently denied ever uttering the phrase, as did the others present. Still, Pym declared this to be indisputable proof of Strafford’s treason.

But even as many of Strafford’s enemies noted, treason was legally defined as acting against the person or office of the king, neither of which Strafford had done. He had served the king faithfully throughout his career. In fact, the radicals had indicted Strafford for that very reason. They had long sought to tread Charles underfoot, but Strafford had thwarted their efforts. In this way, Strafford was not the one on trial -- Charles was.

Strafford’s defense was so persuasive that the House of Lords acquitted him on 10 April 1641. Three days later, however, Pym put forward a Bill of Attainder against Strafford, which required just a simple majority vote to execute him. The bill easily passed the Commons, and rumors spread by Pym of a conspiracy against Parliament induced the Lords to do the same. Now, it was up to King Charles to sign the attainder.

The whole situation had been contrived to force Charles’ hand. If he were to keep his promise to protect Strafford from harm, Parliament would almost certainly revolt, plunging the country into civil war. But if Charles were to sign the attainder, he would execute his friend and advisor, and all but surrender to the radicals. In one final act of counsel to his king, Strafford argued that it was more expedient for him to die than for all England to perish in civil war. Out of duty, he said, Charles had to sign the attainder. He did. Two days later, on 12 May 1641, Strafford was beheaded. Sadly, his death but forestalled the coming civil war, in which the many others, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Charles himself, met the same fate. It would take a decade of rule under a military dictatorship before the monarch -- and order -- was restored.

Granted, Washington’s political persecutions may not foment civil war as England’s did. But before Democrats continue with their inquisition of the Trump administration -- or Republicans canonize its fallen members -- they would all be wise to remember martyrs like Strafford. No one, regardless of their politics, ought rejoice at such tragedies.

On the eve of his death, Strafford wrote a letter to his young son. He urged him to seek not vengeance but peace, that the country might not devolve into bloodshed. Were Strafford still alive, he would almost certainly say the same to America today.

Mr. Josiah Leinbach is a Winston Churchill Fellow at Hillsdale College, where he studies History.

If politics is anything, it is contentious. So long as men have opinions, they shall defend them, even with fervor at times. But contention is not sedition, and as Democrats’ calls to impeach President Trump intensify, it would appear that American politics has moved toward the latter. Both parties believe the other has betrayed its country. Those who once were rivals now are denounced as traitors. He that gathers not is himself scattered.

Where this malice might lead no one knows. But if history is any guide, vindictive politics tend to escalate quickly and end well for no one, especially when guilt matters more than truth. Just ask Thomas Wentworth, the 1st Earl of Strafford.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (source)

Strafford was an English noble and political figure in the decade prior to the English Civil Wars. King Charles I raised Strafford to the peerage in 1628 and then appointed him as Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1633. As Lord Deputy, Strafford zealously pursued the crown’s interests, something for which he would earn the ire of Charles’ many enemies in Parliament.

Charles recalled Strafford to England in 1639 when war broke out against Scotland; and on Strafford’s advice, Charles decided to invade Scotland, giving Strafford command of the army. Parliament, however, refused to grant Charles what they considered to be exorbitant war subsidies. In response, Charles prorogued the session in May 1640, and instead told Strafford to raise money through forced loans. But before Strafford could collect sufficient funds, he fell ill, halting all efforts.

When a newly-convened Parliament assembled at Westminster in November 1640, many parliamentary radicals, led by John Pym, saw an opportunity to take down their enemy Strafford, and thereby weaken Charles’ position, which was their ultimate goal. Therefore, in January 1641, they impeached Strafford for treason. From the start, it was clear that Strafford was not to receive a fair trial. He was deprived of legal counsel, not informed of the particular charges against him, and forbidden to call witnesses in his defense. Most egregiously, many of the prosecution’s witnesses had themselves been previously convicted of conspiracy against both the king and Strafford. Nevertheless, Strafford dismantled the prosecution’s arguments, showing how the charges against him often contradicted themselves.

Late in the trial, Pym surreptitiously acquired notes of a privy council meeting written by Sir Henry Vane. Vane’s notes claimed that Strafford told Charles, “You have an army in Ireland you may employ here to reduce this kingdom.” In his testimony, Vane insisted that the phrase “this kingdom” meant England, though the context of the meeting indicated Scotland. Strafford vehemently denied ever uttering the phrase, as did the others present. Still, Pym declared this to be indisputable proof of Strafford’s treason.

But even as many of Strafford’s enemies noted, treason was legally defined as acting against the person or office of the king, neither of which Strafford had done. He had served the king faithfully throughout his career. In fact, the radicals had indicted Strafford for that very reason. They had long sought to tread Charles underfoot, but Strafford had thwarted their efforts. In this way, Strafford was not the one on trial -- Charles was.

Strafford’s defense was so persuasive that the House of Lords acquitted him on 10 April 1641. Three days later, however, Pym put forward a Bill of Attainder against Strafford, which required just a simple majority vote to execute him. The bill easily passed the Commons, and rumors spread by Pym of a conspiracy against Parliament induced the Lords to do the same. Now, it was up to King Charles to sign the attainder.

The whole situation had been contrived to force Charles’ hand. If he were to keep his promise to protect Strafford from harm, Parliament would almost certainly revolt, plunging the country into civil war. But if Charles were to sign the attainder, he would execute his friend and advisor, and all but surrender to the radicals. In one final act of counsel to his king, Strafford argued that it was more expedient for him to die than for all England to perish in civil war. Out of duty, he said, Charles had to sign the attainder. He did. Two days later, on 12 May 1641, Strafford was beheaded. Sadly, his death but forestalled the coming civil war, in which the many others, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Charles himself, met the same fate. It would take a decade of rule under a military dictatorship before the monarch -- and order -- was restored.

Granted, Washington’s political persecutions may not foment civil war as England’s did. But before Democrats continue with their inquisition of the Trump administration -- or Republicans canonize its fallen members -- they would all be wise to remember martyrs like Strafford. No one, regardless of their politics, ought rejoice at such tragedies.

On the eve of his death, Strafford wrote a letter to his young son. He urged him to seek not vengeance but peace, that the country might not devolve into bloodshed. Were Strafford still alive, he would almost certainly say the same to America today.

Mr. Josiah Leinbach is a Winston Churchill Fellow at Hillsdale College, where he studies History.