Caroline Robbins’ Underground Commonwealth

Caroline Robbins’ The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (1959, republished in 2004) was a pioneering work of intellectual history. The celebrated historians Bernard Bailyn, J.G.A. Pocock, and Gordon Wood all drew directly from Robbins’ text in their own revisionist studies of the “republican” ideals that motivated American revolutionaries and their British forbearers. Indeed, it is fair to say that Commonwealthman cleared the path for the long historiographical debates that followed Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) and Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975). These later works are all indebted to Robbins’ innovative claim that the “radical” politics of the later 18th century had roots in England’s republican Interregnum (1649-1660). That is to say, Robbins demonstrated that to properly understand the philosophy of the American colonies, historians needed to look to the ideas of the English Civil Wars.

Even before publishing her paradigm-shifting thesis, Robbins worked against academia’s status quo. In 1926, Robbins (1903-99) became the first woman to earn a PhD in history from the University of London. Much like the Anglo-American ideals she studied, Robbins then moved to the US, when Bryn Mawr College hired her as the history department’s first female professor. Robbins taught at Bryn Mawr for over four decades and developed a reputation as a professor who held her students to the most rigorous standards.[1] As her 1999 obituary in The Guardian notes, Robbins specialized in “elliptical remarks which assumed a higher level of knowledge than the student could have possessed.” She was “short with sloppiness, laziness and lame excuses.”[2] Even unlazy readers who think they know something or two about British politics might find themselves sympathizing with Robbins’ undergraduates. Robbins was a scholars’ scholar, and The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman is a remarkably dense work. But it is obvious why the likes of Bailyn and Pocock found Robbins’ research so fruitful. She combed through an astonishing number of tracts and pamphlets and opened up a new way of reading British political thought. Even sixty years on, any historian hunting for a research topic would do well to pick up Commonwealthman.

The book follows three generations of English, Irish, and Scottish thinkers after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In terms of political zeal, these subsequent generations paled in comparison to the great republican writers of the Civil Wars and Commonwealth, such as John Harrington, Henry Neville, and Marchamont Needham. By the 18th century, no John Milton was calling for the king’s head, and no Algernon Sidney was headed to the scaffold in the name of the Old Cause. The settlement of 1688, however, rendered revolutionary ideals respectable. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, the authors behind Cato’s Letters, could now cast Machiavelli’s call for a republic to renew its “first principles” as a sound Whig maxim. Complacent readers of Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) found confirmation that the British constitution was the best “balanced” of all governments. Yet even if the writers of the 18th century made their peace with monarchy, Robbins credits these commonwealthmen—who span from 1689 to the American Revolution—with keeping the radicalism of the English Interregnum in circulation. When Thomas Paine defended American independence liberty in Common Sense (1776), he spoke in the vocabulary of “the great Whig canon.”

So what exactly did these latter-day Whigs believe? According to Robbins, the commonwealthmen insisted on an equal application of the law, denied a right to conquest, advocated free thought and religious liberty, and focused their education efforts on training not just good ministers but also good citizens. Robbins paints with broad strokes. Readers familiar with the historiographical controversies that dominated US intellectual history into the 1990s may be surprised to see that Robbins lends support to both the “liberal” and “republican” sides of the debate. Although Commonwealthman was a resource for historians like Pocock, who contend that Harrington’s republican legacy far outweighed the liberal inheritance of John Locke, Robbins herself displays no qualms about the word “liberal.” Her book’s subtitle speaks of the commonwealthmen as the transmitters of “English Liberal Thought.”

Robbins was a good friend of the Cambridge historian Peter Laslett, and she cites Laslett’s landmark research showing that Locke composed his Two Treatises of Government in the early 1680s—meaning Locke did not intend his Second Treatise as an explicit justification of the 1688 Revolution.[3] But although Robbins concedes that Locke “had no sentimental attachment to Commonwealth experiments,” she never tries to write Locke out of the Anglo-American tradition. In fact, Robbins notes that Richard Price, a fierce supporter of both the American and French revolutions, associated William Molyneux’s republican critique of conquest with the work of Locke. Likewise, Robbins frames Thomas Powell, perhaps “the most interesting of eighteenth-century republicans,” as a “disciple of Harrington, of Locke, and of Newton.” Lockean philosophy mixed freely with commonwealth principles and visions of scientific progress.

Robbins is ecumenical with her “commonwealthmen” label. Figures such as Robert Molesworth, Andrew Fletcher, John Toland, Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson—and occasionally even David Hume and Adam Smith—count as commonwealthmen. Commonwealth politics become a big tent because, as Robbins acknowledges, determining “the difference between Whig and Commonwealthmen, in say, 1727, is somewhat like trying to distinguish between northern and southern Democrats, or the Republicans of New Hampshire and those of the Dakotas.” Given these ambiguities, especially in a period when writers eschewed any talk of belonging to a political “party,” Commonwealthman is not a tight conceptual history. Compared to Pocock’s subsequent insistence on “civic virtue” and Wood’s emphasis on the “public good,” Robbins’ account of British republicanism is a surprisingly private affair. For Robbins, important currents in the republican lineage flowed “underground.”

As Robbins states in her 1968 forward, she opted “to deal with persons and groups or coteries, rather than with categories of ideas.” Her book’s humble methodology, which is organized around a series of individual biographies, admits the difficulty of assigning ideological labels in the 18th century. But it also invites objections. After all, why does Robbins’ history include these persons, rather than others, if not for some idea unifying their political thought? Robbins, who had a clear knack for biographical research, observes that the Real Whigs “were related by a bewildering series of marriages.” Readers of a less biographical bent, however, might have wished for fewer family trees. Robbins’ level of detail becomes itself bewildering because, despite her words to the contrary, Commonwealthman really is a book about ideas.

Fundamentally, Robbins is interested in how individual writers transmit ideas—even when the individual himself fails to put these ideas into practice. For, as Robbins stresses repeatedly, the commonwealth tradition was never a concrete political program. If judged for its effect on British parliament, the legacy of the commonwealthmen was “one of failure and frustration.” Yet, from outside the halls of power, several generations of pamphleteers, religious dissenters, and debating clubs preserved the tradition’s revolutionary spirit. Though Robbins cautions that “no achievements in England of any consequence can be credited to them,” it was the commonwealthmen’s extra-parliamentary activities which linked the English Civil War to American independence.

The book’s most significant chapters address Irish and Scottish intellectual circles, whose members were understandably less enamored with the merits of the British constitution. These writers showed more skepticism toward the Scottish-English Act of Union in 1707, more wariness of England’s colonialist treatment of Ireland, and a greater concern for the poor. One of the first reformers whose opponents derided him as a “commonwealthman” was the Irish writer Robert Molesworth (1656-1725). For fellow travelers such as the Scotsman Andrew Fletcher and the Irishmen Walter Moyle and William Molyneux, Molesworth presented a trenchant critique of absolutism. In gathering places like London’s Grecian Coffee House, Molesworth’s followers studied Sidney’s writings, debated the people’s liberties, and revived Machiavelli’s connection between political corruption and mercenary soldiers. Neville, the popular translator of Machiavelli and one of the last of the Interregnum’s intellectuals, apparently met with some of the first-generation commonwealthmen at the Grecian. For instance, Neville clearly inspired Moyle’s Essay upon the Roman Government, in which Moyle argued against a standing army. Moyle’s Essay circulated in manuscript among friends like Fletcher, a fierce critic of King William I’s attempt to retain forces in peacetime.

Barred from attending English universities, Scotland’s Presbyterians developed an academic culture that combined religious education with an emphasis on the personal independence needed to combat poverty and political tyranny. Francis Hutcheson—one of the leading figures in Robbins’ story of the second-generation commonwealthmen—was revered for his moral philosophy lectures at the University of Glasgow. Hutcheson also endorsed a right of resistance, and helped set up the Foulis Press, an important Scottish publisher of Civil War tracts and republican texts. Most of Robbins’ case-studies focus on outsiders: religious dissenters, Irish and Scottish writers, and those sympathetic to the American colonies—all of whom articulated themselves in print, rather than in parliament.

The narrative gains momentum in the final chapter, as American rebellion comes into view. A figure like Thomas Powell, who shared a copy of his Principles of Polity (1752) with the Harvard College library and traveled to the Albany Congress, emerges as a “bridge” character in the arc of the commonwealth tradition, linking the political thought of Harrington to the “agrarian” possibilities of the New World. Reformers such as Richard Price and Joseph Priestly took up this mantle, combining radical pleas for religious tolerance with a vision for a society in which the independent yeoman farmer might flourish. Americans, with their ample access to land, were no doubt fascinated by Harrington’s argument that a balance of freehold property in the hands of the people was essential for a free republic. But Robbins demonstrates how the colonies absorbed Harringtonian ideas through the likes of Powell (whom George Washington offered American citizenship) and Price (who received an honorary degree from Yale). The Whig historian Catharine Macaulay, who supported Harrington’s agrarian law and rotation of offices, passed ten days as a houseguest at Mount Vernon.

If these Anglo-American connections now seem commonsensical, it is in large part because of Commonwealthman’s success in recasting American political thought. After Robbins, the field appreciated that the American revolutionaries were not simply recalling the ideals of bygone British ancestors but in fact in active dialogue with 18th-century commonwealthmen across the Atlantic. As the historian Edmund Morgan put it in 1960, “familiar ideas and events of the revolutionary period suddenly took on a new meaning” in Robbins’ text. Robbins has, in a way, been the victim of her own persuasiveness. Successors like Pocock and Wood so quickly took up her research agenda that she remains much-cited but little read, even by those indebted to the new meanings she exposed. Still, as Robbins herself reminds us, the transmission of political thought is a multi-generational effort. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman stands among the classics of Anglo-American intellectual history. It is a study not only of people but of the ideas that have the power to travel across the printed page and, eventually, to reshape politics.

[1] Lois G. Schwoerer, “Caroline Robbins: An Anglo-American Historian,” in Generations of Women Historians: Within and Beyond the Academy, ed. H.L. Smith and M.S. Zook (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018): 137-56.

[2] Jack Pole, “Caroline Robbins, Revolutionary History Teacher,” The Guardian (February 16, 1999).

[3] Peter Laslett, “The English Revolution and Locke’s ‘Two Treatises of Government,’” The Cambridge Historical Journal 12 (1) (1956): 40-55.

[4] Edmund Morgan, “Review of Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthmen,” The Journal of Modern History 32 (2) (June 1960), 158.