Commonwealth men

The Commonwealth men, Commonwealth's men, or Commonwealth Party were highly outspoken British Protestant religious, political, and economic reformers during the early 18th century. They were active in the movement called the Country Party. They promoted republicanism and had a great influence on Republicanism in the United States, but little impact in Britain.[1]

The most noted commonwealthmen were John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who wrote the seminal work Cato's Letters between 1720 and 1723. Other members include Robert Crowley, Henry Brinkelow, Thomas Beccon, Thomas Lever, and John Hales. They condemned corruption and lack of morality in British political life, theorizing that only civic virtue could protect a country from despotism and ruin.

Their criticism about enclosure and the general material plight of the poor was particularly notable to early twentieth-century scholars like Richard Tawney who saw in them a valuable though regrettably abortive form of Christian Socialism that represented a preferable alternative to the view of Max Weber that Protestantism enabled and sustained the rise of capitalism. On the other hand, it has been argued that the Commonwealthmen "by no means stand against an individualistic or capitalistic spirit, and--despite what [for example, historians JGA Pocock and Gordon Wood] have claimed--are far from espousing classical virtue or the Aristotelian conception of man as zoon politikon [a political animal]."[2]

Since the 1979 publication of an article by G. R. Elton, the existence of a "commonwealth party" has been widely rejected as a largely romantic, sentimental construction, and its supposed "members" are unlikely to be classified even as a "movement" now, but reference to the "commonwealth men" or "commonwealthsmen" persists in scholarly literature.

Although nearly all British politicians and thinkers rejected the ideas of the commonwealth men in the eighteenth century, these writers had a powerful effect on British colonial America. It is estimated that half the private libraries in the American Colonies held bound volumes of Cato's Letters on their shelves.[3] The Commonwealthman ideas of civic virtue, freedom, and government carefully regulated and controlled by the people were major principles in the republicanism that became the dominant ideology of the American Revolution and the new American nation.


  1. Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (1959)
  2. Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the America Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 30.
  3. Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, (Cambridge MA, 1967).


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