What is a Holy Commonwealth?  

An Introduction to Richard Baxter’s Political Aphorisms

We are, I hope, entering a stage of more aggressive and sustained resourcement of Protestant political thought, its sixteenth, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century instantiations. One text, still known to some, that must be reinjected into the Protestant bloodstream is Richard Baxter’s Holy Commonwealth (1659), otherwise referred to as his Political Aphorisms. Oddly, perhaps, it has remained accessible since its publication on both sides of the Atlantic—a curated version was republished by Cambridge in the 1980s along with political works from William of Ockham, George Lawson, Richard Hooker, and others— and, along with the Christian Directory, has received regularly scholarly mention though little if any sustained treatment of that kind. A course at Davenant Institute, taught by Michael Lynch and me, this fall term may be the only of its kind insofar as we are reading straight through the Holy Commonwealth along with supplements for Baxter’s other relevant texts in his voluminous corpus. Of course, now archaic framing, concepts, and terms riddle the book, presenting a bit of a learning curve that can nevertheless be remedied by regular exposure to seventeenth century literature.

This brief series will endeavor to outline and explicate such things, those things found in Baxter that either represent continuity in historic Protestant political thought, and those things that challenge our present malaise. To begin at the beginning, an initial question for some readers will result from the title itself: what is a commonwealth? Others may have been available to Baxter. Why “commonwealth,” and what is its semantic and conceptual function and import? Is the term relatable to more contemporary terms like nation or kingdom or state?


Four states stand alone in America in referring to themselves as “commonwealths” rather than “states.” Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia exhaust this list.

Some speculate that there is anti-monarchical sentiment attached to late eighteenth century usage of commonwealth in opposition to other synonyms. If so, this was certainly not universal, controlling usage and erroneous suggestion otherwise ignores functional considerations.

Eighteenth century employment of “commonwealth” may also denote strong federalist leanings given that in the early republic it was not uncommon to conceive of each state as a sort of nation, and even recent Supreme Court precedent (e.g., U.S. v. Arizona) has affirmed the parallel sovereignty of each American state. Other countries maintain the moniker, viz., Australia, Bahamas, and Dominica. Perhaps, most famous, the Commonwealth of England served as the official label for Cromwell’s Protectorate (which was anything but democratic), a venerable stage in English history for many short-lived reasons out of scope here. As Paul Lay has argued in his recent book, Providence Lost, Cromwell was more powerful than any English monarch before him or since. Whatever his formal title, he was a monarch. In the seventeenth century, then, the term in question was not constrained by any particular governmental-administrative form. That period, however brief, is important for our present purposes given Baxter published his political magnum opus just months prior to the collapse of the Commonwealth government. On to the term itself.

Commonwealth is a political-civil society and governed for the common good of that society. This is a classical definition and justification for any political arrangement. Common good, public good, public wealth, common wellbeing, res publica, these are all literal synonyms. Given the Roman source, res publica, or public affair, some will want to limit “commonwealth” to the contemporary sense of “republic,” which is usually and colloquially, in that context, reducible to democracy.

But, of course, the definition of republicanism is not that simple. James Barclay may have formulaically simplified “commonwealth” as government wherein the “supreme power is lodged in the people; a republic; a democracy,” but it was not so simple for other theorists, and the meaning of the term remained variegated. Serving as a late example, for John Adams, republicanism signals a mood more than a form of government and, therefore, is not synonymous with or reducible to “democracy.” This is obvious in his Thoughts on Government (1776). And again, Massachusetts has been a “commonwealth” since 1780.

At bottom, the term commonwealth is only related to republican government in the general sense described by Adams, viz., non-arbitrary government administered for the common, not private, good, and is easily interchangeable with nation or kingdom in terms of scope or scale. This will become obvious from Baxter’s writings. This is, in part, why I have referred to Baxter as a nationalist: he holds that the ceiling on true political organization, in church and state, as will be later described, is the nation; for him, England. And commonwealthist just doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Again, when you hear “commonwealth” think of Baxter’s context and experience, think the nation or kingdom of England, think of the scope of the Protectorate.

Commonwealths Proper and Analogical

The above excursus out of the way, the more direct inquiry is pursuit of the genuine article. What is a proper commonwealth or nation?

Baxter, in Holy Commonwealth, defines a commonwealth in two senses, according to its proper use and according to its analogical use.

“Thesis 46: A Commonwealth properly so called, is a society of God’s subjects ordered into the Relations of Sovereign and Subjects for the common good, and the pleasing of God their Absolute Sovereign. Or, it is the Government of a society of God’s subjects by a Sovereign subordinate to God, for the common good, and the Glory, and pleasing of God. Or it is the order of a Civil body, consisting in the Authority of the Magistrates; especially the supreme, and the subjection of the people, for the common good, and the pleasing of God.”

This is three ways of saying the same thing, but you will notice that a commonwealth proper is one ordered to God, the highest good. It is expressly a people, joined with civil authority, oriented to the common good which includes the highest good, and the honor of God in all its dealings. It is self-conscious in its submission to God. It is, in short, a Christian civil society.

Analogically (“only secundum quid”), a commonwealth can be, “The order of a Civil body, consisting of Governors and Subjects intended for their corporal Welfare, but acknowledging not God’s Sovereignty, nor intending the Spiritual and everlasting good, nor the pleasing or honor of God.”

This atheist commonwealth maintains the form of a commonwealth but lacks the “Essential Ingredients” or the “Fundamentals” that make a commonwealth moral, “for they intend not any spiritual and everlasting good to the societies, or intend not the honour and pleasing of God, but begin and end their Government with their carnal selves.” An atheist commonwealth therefore is not a commonwealth proper, “even no more then [sic] an Ideot is a reasonable man.”

No Mere Aggregation

In any case, the form of a commonwealth is the relation between the sovereign and the subjects. The sine qua non of a commonwealth is the sovereign. It is not until the sovereign is joined with the subjects that a commonwealth transitions from an aggregation of men to a civil society.

“[I]f a meer Aggregation of natural men did make a Common-wealth and Soveraignty, then a Fare or Market might be a Common wealth: or a ship laden with Passengers or a Prison full of Captives.” It cannot be that just any grouping, any spontaneous “community,” geographically proximate constitutes a commonwealth. A merchant guild is not a commonwealth, for example; it lacks the essential ingredients. What makes any society a commonwealth is the presence of government, the subordination of subjects to sovereignty, for the common good of civil or political society.

To recap, for Baxter, a commonwealth deserving of the name is a society, under government, oriented to the common good as well as the highest good, God himself. It is organized political community properly directed. It could be said, as Cicero did, that a commonwealth is political association joined and governed by law, but as we will get to with Baxter, the presence of law—something necessitated by man’s intellectual nature—implies a lawgiver which implies authority, which implies government. When Baxter simplifies the definition of commonwealth as subject plus sovereign, he is thereby encapsulating this.

And it is not an option for man to live outside this state of existence; isolation is unnatural, as is anarchic “community” or mere cohabitation.

Contra Democracy

We will return to the formation of the sovereign-subject dynamic that is constitutive of commonwealths shortly. A preliminary question here is the form sovereignty can take. Democracy, wherein the sovereignty is lodged in the subjects is an oxymoron. Here we can pull in a supplementary text that offers a condensed version of Baxter’s argument. In Of National Churches, and many other places, Baxter insists that,

“The People have no Jus regendi, Governing Authority, to use themselves, or to give to others: So false is the Principle of Mr. Hooker and Laud, and many others, that make them the Fountain of Power. They have the Power called strength (in which a Horse excelleth a Man) but not Authority. If any Nation be Democratical it is not because men are born with any right to Political Government, but only to Private Self-government. But because Contract hath so ordered the Form of Government. And indeed tho’ a City may be Democratically Governed, I know not how any great Nation can possibly be so: So that I think there is scarce any true Democracy in the World.

For to chuse Governours is not to Govern: And those that by the People are chosen are an Aristocracy. Rome was not all the Roman Empire: What right then had the Populus Romanus to Govern the Empire? This was not like Democracy, where the Majority of the whole body Governs. The same I may say of Venice as they Govern all that are under them. It is truely an Aristocracy.”

(Baxter develops the same basic objections even further in Holy Commonwealth.)

The people (i.e., subjects) have no right or power to govern because there is no government, no such authority, until a commonwealth exists, an occurrence which requires, as we’ve said, the installation of a sovereign (whatever its form). Popular sovereignty is nonsensical insofar as it assumes the people can give something they never possess. Baxter repeatedly criticizes Richard Hooker for adopting a form of popular sovereignty in his own account of socio-political genesis and distribution of power.

To Baxter, self-government is different in kind, in species, than the jus regendi. It is non-transferrable just as true political governing authority (i.e., lawmaking capacity, what Matthew Hale called nomothetical power) is non-transferrable. Nor can governing authority, lawmaking authority, be generated by that which cannot wield it politically. There is no real analogy between self-government and socio-political governance.  

Baxter analogizes between husband and wife. The wife makes a man a husband by choosing to marry him, but she does not thereby confer husband-like authority to him by grant, for a woman, by nature, whether married or unmarried, is incapable of possessing husband-like authority. A husband possesses authority because of the marriage but not by or through the wife.

Neither then does an individual or a group of individuals possess the power of governance over a commonwealth since a commonwealth cannot exist absent the union of sovereign and subject, by which union both stations are created. Moreover, all subjects cannot possess jus regendi for then there would be no subject to rule over and, therefore, no government in the absence of the sovereign-subject distinction. As Baxter says, “Where there is no Subject, there is no Sovereign; But if all conjunctly are feigned to be the Sovereign, there would be no Subject… the Relate cannot be without its Correlate.”

Now, this rejection of popular sovereignty and this hard distinction between self-government and jus regendi—a needed and necessary distinction, mind you—does not in principle entail any particular form of government. We will return to the question of government form more thoroughly in a later installment in this series. At this juncture we can note that Baxter also rejects democracy not only in its pure form but also impure form. That is, the idea that majority vote is a reliable and preferrable mode of governance since “There is nothing in nature to tell us that 1001 should have Power of Governing (and so of the lives) of 999.” On the other hand, “The world knows that knowledge followeth not the Majority Vote. A few Learned experienced men, may be wiser then [sic] a thousand times as many of the Vulgar.”

Curiously, for modern liberals, Baxter does not see dispersion or sharing of power as a mechanism for control unto right use of the same. In a teleological approach to government, the important thing is not the means as such but the ends. And a proper end of a commonwealth is not limitation or variegated distribution of power. The common good, not perpetual, petulant damage control—as if a system of government is a corporate risk department—is not the end of a commonwealth; such can only ever be an instrumental or intermediate good, a pragmatic consideration. Power qua power does not scare Baxter. What scares him is improper or inept governance which is more likely to occur in a democracy than an aristocracy—Thomas Aquinas more or less agreed in De Regno. Baxter is very concerned with aptitude for governance, qualities that can be located in men but not an amalgamation of men.

Moreover, the jus regendi is not acquired by nature but acquired by commission and is necessarily relational as we’ve already said (i.e., sovereign v. subject). A mass of people cannot acquire such, even if every individual contained therein possessed personal aptitude for it.

Shared Things, Shared Ends

A commonwealth can, at least theoretically, include a multiplicity of nations, as it did under the Cromwellian Protectorate (i.e., England, Scotland, and Ireland) (see the Commonwealth Instrument of Government (1653)). But the scope of a commonwealth must be governed by the extent to which the subjects and sovereign therein can relate well to one another for the purpose of pursuing shared things, viz., the common good and the highest good. The temporal common good requires general agreement on the nature and quality of goods in view. It also requires the ability to relate at a very granular, functional level, for coalescence around certain goals. Obviously, the personnel, so to speak, of the commonwealth must be finite and known for the purpose of governance and directed action (i.e., law).

And, to return to our definitional elements, the members of a commonwealth, kingdom, or nation must be directed by the same sovereign to which they are subjected. More importantly, the people of a nation or commonwealth must hold in common the highest good, viz., religion, at least at some degree of abstraction sufficient to minimize conflict and maximize homogeneity. To that end, the relationship between the nation and the church—the “Church as National”— will be the subject of the subsequent installment in this series. But briefly, we must mention that a perennial problem is the extent to which heterogeneity can be introduced before some unquantifiable threshold is reached to the detriment of the polity, culture, and nation. Peace, stability, and tranquility are all basic temporal goods which cannot, despite liberalism’s best efforts, be achieved via maximized and compounded difference. Baxter assumes England as his scope and subject throughout Holy Commonwealth, and further that England is not Turkey, India, or Persia. This may seem obvious and redundant, but today it does not always appear so. 

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