THE execution of Charles I has been mentioned in later ages by a few with unlimited praise, by some with faint and ambiguous censure, by most with vehement reprobation. My own judgement will possibly be anticipated by certainly reader of the preceding pages. I shall certainly not rest it on the imaginary sacredness and divine origin of royalty, nor even on the irresponsibility with which the law of almost every country invests the person of its sovereign. Far be it from me to contend that no cases may be conceived, that no instances may be found in history, wherein the sympathy of mankind and the sound principles of political justice would approve a public judicial sentence as the due reward of tyranny and perfidiousness. But we may confidently deny that Charles I was thus to be singled out as a warning to tyrants. His offences were not, in the worst interpretation, of that atrocious character which calls down the vengeance of insulted humanity, regardless of positive law. His government had been very arbitrary; but it may well be doubted whether any, even of his ministers, could have suffered death for their share in it, without introducing a principle of barbarous vindictiveness. Far from the sanguinary misanthropy of some monarchs, or the revengeful fury of others, he had in no instance displayed, nor does the minute scrutiny since made into his character entitle us to suppose, any malevolent dispositions beyond some proneness to anger, and a considerable degree of harshness in his demeanour. As for the charge of having caused the bloodshed of the war, upon which, and not on any former misgovernment, his condemnation was grounded, it was as ill established as it would have been insufficient. Well might the Earl of Northumberland say, when the ordinance for the king's trial was before the Lords, that the greatest part of the people of England were not yet satisfied whether the king levied war first against the houses, or the houses against him. The fact, in my opinion, was entirely otherwise. It is quite another question whether the parliament were justified. in their resistance to the king's legal authority. But we may contend that, when Hotham, by their command, shut the gates of Hull against his sovereign, when the militia was called out in different counties by an ordinance of the two houses, both of which preceded by several weeks any levying of forces for the king, the bonds of our constitutional law were by them and their servants snapped asunder; and it would be the mere pedantry and chicane of political casuistry to inquire, even if the fact could be better ascertained, whether at Edgehill, or in the minor skirmishes that preceded, the first carbine was discharged by a cavalier or a roundhead. The aggressor in a war is not the first who uses force, but the first who renders force necessary.
But, whether we may think this war to have originated in the king's or the parliament's aggression, it is still evident that the former had a fair cause with the nation, a cause which it was no plain violation of justice to defend. He was supported by the greater part of the Peers, by full one-third of the Commons, by the principal body of the gentry, and a large proportion of other classes. If his adherents did not form, as I think they did not, the majority of the people, they were at least more numerous, beyond comparison, than those who demanded or approved of his death. The steady deliberate perseverance of so considerable a body in any cause takes away the right of punishment from the conquerors, beyond what their own safety or reasonable indemnification may require. The vanquished are to be judged by the rules of national, not of municipal, law. Hence, if Charles, after having by a course of victories or the defection of the people prostrated all opposition, had abused his triumph by the execution of Essex or Hampden, Fairfax or Cromwell, I think that later ages would have disapproved of their deaths as positively, though not quite as vehemently, as they have of his own. The line is not easily drawn, in abstract reasoning, between the treason which is justly punished, and the social schism which is beyond the proper boundaries of law; but the civil war of England seems plainly to fall within the latter description. These objections strike me as unanswerable, even if the trial of Charles had been sanctioned by the voice of the nation through its legitimate representatives, or at least such a fair and full convention as might, in great necessity, supply the place of lawful authority. But it was, as we all know, the act of a bold but very small minority, who having forcibly expelled their colleagues from parliament, had usurped, under the protection of a military force, that power which all England reckoned illegal. I cannot perceive what there was in the imagined solemnity of this proceeding, in that insolent mockery of the forms of justice, accompanied by all unfairness and inhumanity in its circumstances, which can alleviate the guilt of the transaction; and if it be alleged that many of the regicides were firmly persuaded in their consciences of the right and duty of condemning the king, we may surely remember that private murderers have often had the same apology.
In discussing each particular transaction in the life of Charles, as of any other sovereign, it is required by the truth of history to spare no just animadversion upon his faults; especially where much art has been employed by the writers most in repute to carry the stream of public prejudice in an opposite direction. But when we come to a general estimate of his character, we should act unfairly not to give their full weight to those peculiar circumstances of his condition in this worldly scene, which tend to account for and extenuate his failings. The station of kings is, in a moral sense, so unfavourable, that those who are least prone to servile admiration should be on their guard against the opposite error of an uncandid severity. There seems no fairer method of estimating the intrinsic worth of a sovereign, than to treat him as a subject, and to judge, so far as the history of his life enables us, what he would have been in that more private and happier condition, from which the chance of birth has excluded him. Tried by this test, we cannot doubt that Charles I would have been not altogether an amiable man, but one deserving of general esteem; his firm and conscientious virtues the same, his deviations from right far less frequent, than upon the throne. It is to be pleaded for this prince that his youth had breathed but the contaminated air of a profligate and servile court, that he had imbibed the lessons of arbitrary power from all who surrounded him, that he had been betrayed by a father's culpable blindness into the dangerous society of an ambitious, unprincipled favourite. To have maintained so much correctness of morality as his enemies confess, was a proof of Charles's virtuous dispositions; but his advocates are compelled also to own that he did not escape as little injured by the poisonous adulation to which he had listened. Of a temper by nature, and by want of restraint, too passionate, though not vindictive; and, though not cruel, certainly deficient in gentleness and humanity, he was entirely unfit for the very difficult station of royalty, and especially for that of a constitutional king. It is impossible to excuse his violations of liberty on the score of ignorance, especially after the Petition of Right; because his impatience of opposition from his council made it unsafe to give him any advice that thwarted his determination. His other great fault was want of sincerity—a fault that appeared in all parts of his life, and from which no one who has paid the subject any attention will pretend to exculpate him. Those indeed who know nothing but what they find in Hume may believe, on Hume's authority, that the king's contemporaries never dreamed of imputing to him any deviation from good faith; as if the whole conduct of the parliament had not been evidently founded upon a distrust, which on many occasions they very explicitly declared. But, so far as this insincerity was shown in the course of his troubles, it was a failing which untoward circumstances are apt to produce; and which the extreme hypocrisy of many among his adversaries might sometimes palliate. Few personages in history, we should recollect, have had so much of their actions revealed, and commented upon, as Charles; it is perhaps a mortifying truth that those who have stood highest with posterity, have seldom been those who have been most accurately known.
The turn of his mind was rather peculiar, and laid him open with some justice to very opposite censures—for an extreme obstinacy in retaining his opinion, and for an excessive facility in adopting that of others. But the apparent incongruity ceases, when we observe that he was tenacious of ends, and irresolute as to means; better fitted to reason than to act; never swerving from a few main principles, but diffident of his own judgement in its application to the course of affairs. His chief talent was an acuteness in dispute; a talent not usually much exercised by kings, but which the strange events of his life called into action. He had, unfortunately for himself, gone into the study most fashionable in that age, of polemical theology; and, though not at all learned, had read enough of the English divines to maintain their side of the current controversies with much dexterity. But this unkingly talent was a poor compensation for the continual mistakes of his judgement in the art of government and the conduct of his affairs.