1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Instrument of Government
INSTRUMENT OF GOVERNMENT, the name given to the decree, or written constitution, under which Oliver Cromwell as “lord protector of the commonwealth” governed England, Scotland and Ireland from December 1653 to May 1657.
The Long Parliament was expelled in April 1653 and the council of state dissolved; the Little, or Nominated, parliament which followed ended its existence by abdication; and Cromwell, officially lord general of the army, with a new council of state, remained the only recognized authority in the country. It was in these circumstances that the Instrument of Government, drawn up by some officers in the army, prominent among whom was John Lambert, was brought forward. The document appears to have been under consideration since the middle of October 1653, but Ludlow says it was “in a clandestine manner carried on and huddled up by two or three persons,” a remark probably very near the truth. The nominated parliament abdicated on the 12th of December 1653, and after certain emendations the Instrument was accepted by Cromwell on the 16th. Consisting of forty-two articles, the Instrument placed the legislative power in the hands of “one person, and the people assembled in parliament”; the executive power was left to the lord protector, whose office was to be elective and not hereditary, and a council of state numbering from thirteen to twenty-one members. The councillors were appointed for life; fifteen were named in the Instrument itself; and Cromwell and the council were empowered to add six. To fill vacancies parliament must name six persons, of whom the council would select two, the choice between these two being left to the protector. A parliament was to meet on the 3rd of September 1654, and until that date the protector with the consent of the council could make ordinances which would have the force of laws. After the meeting of parliament, however, he had no power of legislation, nor had he any veto upon its acts, the utmost he could do being to delay new legislation for twenty days. A new parliament must be called “once in every third year,” elaborate arrangements being made to prevent any failure in this respect, and for five months it could not be dissolved save with its own consent. The parliament, composed of a single chamber, was to consist of 460 members—400 for England and Wales, and 30 each for Scotland and Ireland—and the representative system was entirely remodelled, growing towns sending members for the first time, and many small boroughs being disfranchised. A large majority of the English members, 265 out of 400, were to be elected by the counties, where voters must possess land or personal property of the value of £200, while in the boroughs the franchise remained unaltered. In Scotland and Ireland the arrangement of the representation was left to the protector and the council. Roman Catholics and all concerned in the Irish rebellion were permanently disfranchised and declared incapable of sitting in parliament, and those who had taken part in the war against the parliament were condemned to a similar disability during the first four parliaments. The protector was empowered to raise a revenue of £200,000 in addition to a sum sufficient to maintain the navy and an army of 30,000 men, and religious liberty was granted “provided this liberty be not extended to Popery or Prelacy.” The chief officers of state were to be chosen with the consent of parliament, and a parliament must be summoned at once in case of war. The practical effect of the Instrument was to entrust the government of the three countries to the parliament for five months out of every three years, and to the protector and the council for the remainder of the time. Although the Instrument bristled with possibilities of difference between parliament and protector, “it is impossible,” as Gardiner says, “not to be struck with the ability of its framers.”
Having issued many ordinances and governed in accordance with the terms of the Instrument, Cromwell duly met parliament on the 3rd of September, and on the following day he urged the members to give it the force of a parliamentary enactment. Many representatives objected to the provision placing the supreme power in the hands of a single person and of parliament, a discussion which was futile, as clause XII. of the Instrument declared that “the persons elected shall not have power to alter the government as it is hereby settled in one single person and a parliament.” The proceedings were soon stopped by Cromwell, who on the 12th of September explained that there was a difference between “fundamentals” which they might not, and “circumstantials” which they might, alter. He concluded by stating that they would be excluded unless they subscribed a recognition to be true to the protector and the commonwealth, and to respect the terms of clause XII. Over three hundred members took the required step; but they proceeded to alter the Instrument in other ways, and over the question of the control of the army they were soon in sharp conflict with the protector. At length, on the 22nd of January 1655, Cromwell, counting twenty weeks as five months, dissolved parliament.
Regarding the Instrument as still in force the protector sought for a time to rule in accordance with its provisions; but new difficulties and growing discontent forced him to govern in a more arbitrary fashion. However, in July 1656 he issued writs for a second parliament which met in the following September. Many members, men of advanced views, were excluded by the council of state, acting on the strength of clause XVII., which declared that those elected must be “persons of known integrity, fearing God, and of good conversation.” The remainder discussed the question of the future government of the country, and in May 1657 Cromwell assented to the Humble Petition and Advice, which supplanted the Instrument of Government. Gardiner says the Instrument was “the first of hundreds of written constitutions which have since spread over the world, of which the American is the most conspicuous example, in which a barrier is set up against the entire predominance of any one set of official persons, by attributing strictly limited functions to each.”
The text of the Instrument is printed in S. R. Gardiner’s Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution (Oxford, 1899). See also S. R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, vols. ii. and iii. (London, 1897–1901); L. von Ranke, Englische Geschichte (1859–1868); and T. Carlyle, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (London, 1897–1901). (A. W. H.*)