Cromwell in America
As America built a vision of its past Oliver Cromwell became both angel and demon.
The posthumous fate of Oliver Cromwell is as interesting as the life itself, given that his reputation has pivoted in so many different directions. Cromwell appeared in Italian plays, French polemics, German literature and the letters of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly; but nowhere was his afterlife more pronounced and fraught than in the United States. It was inevitable that his name would live on in a North America populated by English, Scottish and Irish immigrants. But Cromwell was also baked into the American project from the beginning. For some he was claimed as a kind of honorary American, while others were repelled by his tyranny or imperial designs.
Cromwell’s presence was most visibly felt in Puritan New England, as evidenced by the many streets and towns which bear his name today. The connections were personal as well as religious and political: William Hooke, the clergyman who had been based in New Haven for 20 years, would return to England during the Protectorate to serve as Whitehall chaplain; Hooke’s wife was Cromwell’s cousin. Cromwell was not universally beloved in New England, however. One can safely assume that he was viewed quite differently by the hundreds of Scottish labour-replenishing indentured servants he sent to the colonies after their capture at Dunbar and Worcester, for example. The Congregationalists might have admired Cromwell, but the sentiment was not shared by the more extreme Quakers and Baptists who also troubled Cromwell back home. Even so, these religious groups would come to be associated with Cromwell’s legacy by men such as the Anglican clergyman James MacSparran, who condemned the ‘levelism’ and ‘anarchy’ that attended their ‘Oliverian spirit’.
A century later, in 1777, revolutionary patriots would torment another Anglican, the loyalist reverend William Clark, when they locked him in a room in a public house and forced him to gaze at a portrait of Cromwell for nearly an hour. Cromwell, of course, had extinguished the Church of England and its episcopacy during his rule and so he would not have been remembered fondly by the Anglicans. While British Tories proceeded to tar all rebels as ‘descendants of Oliver Cromwell’, the rebels were themselves often conflicted. Revolutionary-era Americans embraced the 17th-century republicans John Hampden and Algernon Sidney as heroic forefathers, but Cromwell’s betrayal of the cause and his subsequent designation as Lord Protector led the founders to deem him a tyrant.
Cromwell had long been memorialised in Britain as a ‘usurper’, but, given that the drafters of the constitution were crafting a republican experiment in moderate political governance, the danger of a despot betraying the cause held particular resonance. Yet Cromwell could elicit admiration as well, when viewed through the prism of liberty. John Adams wrote that ‘there was never a greater self-deceiver than Oliver Cromwell’, but he also paid indirect homage to the man when he visited Worcester, scene of Cromwell’s great victory, and pondered why ‘Englishmen so soon forget the ground where liberty was fought for.’ ‘Tell your neighbors and your children that this is holy ground, much holier than that on which your churches stand’, he continued. ‘All England should come in pilgrimage to this hill, once a year.’
The Janus-faced picture of Cromwell in America continued through the 19th century and was repurposed to fit new historical realities. In the 1840s Thomas Carlyle’s epic rehabilitation of the man electrified audiences in the US and Britain, inspiring figures such as the abolitionist and martyr John Brown, called the ‘Cromwell of America’ by his admirers and a ‘regular Cromwellian dug up’ by his enemies. Carlyle also converted an initially sceptical Ralph Waldo Emerson, who came to be an enthusiastic admirer of the man. The Boston Pilot subsequently described Emerson as one who ‘fawns and bows and admires’, and ‘flops down before his idols’. The dismissal by the Irish-American Pilot was significant, for it reflected a momentous development in Cromwell’s afterlife in Irish America. Not only did Irish-American newspapers, public lecturers and popular histories memorialise Cromwell as the butcher of Drogheda and Wexford, but as the man who was responsible for the present state of Ireland, including its land iniquities and even the famine.
The competing views of Cromwell were most vividly encapsulated in the lecture tour of 1872 by J.A. Froude, author of the History of England and ardent proponent of the benevolence of Britain’s – and Cromwell’s – conquest of Ireland. Froude saw his visit as a pressing one, given the rising Anglophobia among Americans still angry over British meddling in the Civil War and Irish-Americans who were sending aid to the home country. Froude came prepared for controversy, though not for the disaster that unfolded. Reviews of his lectures were middling, describing his poor speaking style or his tendency to appear as an ‘enthusiastic zealot’. The Irish-American audiences that filled the lecture halls were not pleased to hear that ‘I consider [Cromwell] to have been the best friend, in the best sense, to all that was good in Ireland’. Meanwhile, he was followed by the competing lectures of the Irish Dominican preacher Thomas Burke, who pointed out Froude’s factual inaccuracies and reminded his audiences of ‘Blood-stained Oliver Cromwell’, who had ‘glutted himself with the blood of the people’. In Boston, a servant allegedly refused to stay in the dwelling where Froude was lodged. Eventually the remainder of the tour was cancelled and the historian returned home. ‘Froude is really a man to be congratulated, or almost envied’, the Irish nationalist and American exile John Mitchel wrote, for he ‘has stirred up hosts of vindictive enemies on both sides of the Atlantic’.
Cromwell continued to be fashioned as a hero or villain in the service of different causes over the coming centuries. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, viewed Cromwell as ‘an eminently practical man’ and implicitly justified his own imperial ambitions from Cromwell’s example. In New England, the hatred of the Boston Catholic Irish for Cromwell persisted well into the 20th century, even as it pushed up against the enduring if conflicted admiration of New England Yankees. Memory of him in America has faded now, especially given that he is no longer taught in schools. But for a time, remembering Cromwell – making Cromwell American, as it were – was central to the development of American political discourse and in the formation of identities. That he could represent so many different things to so many speaks not only of his tangled legacy, but of the various pasts to which Americans laid claim.
Sarah Covington is Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the author of The Devil from over the Sea: Remembering and Forgetting Oliver Cromwell in Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2022).