A New Year’s Gift sent to the Parliament and Army – Summary

A New Year’s Gift for the Parliament and Army, published in 1650, can be seen as an appeal to the ‘common people’ who fought for the Parliamentarians but were not happy with the newly established order. Gerrard Winstanley supported Parliament’s struggle wholeheartedly as it promised liberation against ‘kingly power’ (monarchical absolutism). He had hoped that the Civil Wars would lead to a better regime with ‘democracy’ and ‘equality’ as the central tenets of society. But alas, he was disappointed with the new regime that was established under Cromwell’s rule. Though society had changed, he could still observe economic and social inequality. Winstanley’s present text is a plea to the Parliament and the Army to end the economic and social inequality in society. He also includes biblical allusions in his work. The title of the tract is a reference to a custom which was prevalent in the seventeenth century, in which gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day, not on Christmas Eve.

Summary

In this tract, Winstanley addresses the Parliament and the Army and reminds them of the common people’s cooperation and assistance in overthrowing the ‘kingly power’ which rested in one person’s hand, that is, the King. He says that “the people came and failed you not, counting neither purse nor blood too dear to part with to effect this work” (Greenblatt et al 1752). This has led to the casting out of ‘kingly power’ and the formation of the ‘free’ Commonwealth. The people rejoiced in anticipation of equal opportunities and freedom. No man, he says, should be troubled to declare or cast out the ‘kingly power’. Winstanley warns against the ‘kingly power’ and says “kingly power is like a great spread tree, if you lop the head or top bough, and let the other branches and root stand, it will grow again and recover fresher strength” (Greenblatt et al 1752). He further explains what he means by the ‘kingly power’ and says it is ‘twofold’ in nature. First, is the kingly power of ‘righteousness’ and the other one is of ‘unrighteousness’. He explains that ‘righteousness’ is the ‘power of almighty God’ and it represents ‘universal love’ which leads people to ‘truth’ and “. . .the one spirit of love and righteousness…” (Greenblatt et al 1752). He describes that this ‘kingly power’ will wipe out all negativity like covetousness, pride, and envy. One who possesses this ‘kingly power’ is like Christ himself, who will save his people from any kind of calamity or curse. The other kind of ‘kingly power’, he says, is ‘unrighteousness’ and is evil personified. In this respect, Winstanley “accuses Parliament [and the army] of having merely transferred oppressive power from the king to itself, leaving most of England’s population as impoverished and downtrodden as before” (Greenblatt et al 1745). Common people did not expect this ‘unrighteousness’ from the new regime. He refers to Mathew 5:13 from the Bible and complains “. . .for the kingly power of righteousness expects it, or else he will cast you out for hypocrites and unsavory salt; for he looks upon all your actions . . .” (Greenblatt et al 1753).

Winstanley sees ‘kingly power’ as ‘covetousness’ in nature. He has no illusions regarding
the legitimacy of the ‘kingly power’ which presents itself either as the King or in the form of the Commonwealth. In this regard, Christopher Hill remarks, “It was clearer to Winstanley than to most radicals that the state and its legal institutions existed to hold the lower classes in place”. Yet again, Winstanley turns to the Bible to justify his arguments. He chooses passages from the Bible that suit his agenda. He relates contemporary history to the allegories in the Book of Revelation; as a confrontation between the powers of darkness and light. He warns the Parliamentarians not to indulge themselves in this ‘dark kingly power’, to rise higher and rule. They should be righteous and work to dismantle the divide created between the rich and the poor.

Winstanley further narrates that the King, Charles I created the illusion of freedom for both the gentry and the common people. He talks about the atrocities inflicted by monarchical absolutism and how the Parliamentarians rose against this tyranny; the way the common people helped the cause with “their plate, monies, taxes, free-quarter, excise, and to adventure their lives with them …” (Greenblatt et al 1754) which resulted in victory for Parliament. The only thing that these common people are interested in is the fruits of their labour and they plead “…our property in the common land as truly our own by virtue of this victory over the king…” (Greenblatt et al 1754). In this connection, Winstanley wrote in The Law of Freedom (1652), “The poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man. True
freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth.”

Winstanley suggests practical ways to remedy inequalities and inequities in society and comes up with four claims. First, by the law of land and purchase; Winstanley appeals that the common land should be available for the use of common people. Second, the common land should be divided between the two parties: the Parliament and the common people. He further says, “The Parliament, consisting of lords of manors and gentry, ought to have their enclosure lands free to them without molestation. . .. And the common people … paid taxes and free-quarter, ought to have the freedom of all waste and common land and crown land equally among them” (Greenblatt et al 1755). Third, the common people have an equal claim in the victory against the King, as they helped in creating the Commonwealth and casting away the ‘kingly power’. He advocates that the lords and corrupt judges should be stripped of any power as they worked under the King and contributed to the bondage of the people as they denied “the common people the use and free benefit of the earth” (Greenblatt et al 1755). Fourth, if this freedom of using the common will is denied to the common people that means the Parliament will also be denying the principles of ‘equity’ and ‘freedom’ on which the Commonwealth is built. He expresses, “the common land is my own land, equal with my fellow commoners, and our true property, by the law of creation” (Greenblatt et al 1756). At the end of the essay, he says that ‘true religion’ is to let everyone enjoy the benefits of the common land and appeals to the honour of Christ, the restitution of the land should take place as it was denied to the common people by the ‘kingly power’ for so long.

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