It happened today - May 25, 2016
“I resign.” If used when appropriate it would be used more often than it is. And yes, it’s an admission of failure, or at least of unsuitability to a job. But think of Tumbledown Dick, who did it on May 25 of 1659.
I refer of course to Richard Cromwell, one of only two commoners to be head of state in England, when he inherited the pompous title of Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland from his dad, Oliver Cromwell. There is of course something fishy about commoners inheriting hereditary power. As there was something fishy about Cromwell Sr.’s whole elaborate pretense of rule of law that only amounted, as one wag put it, to putting a wig on the point of a sword. But here’s the thing.
Cromwell Sr. never saw the irony, or tyranny, of making himself a disguised king. But his son Richard did. What’s more, he looked in the mirror and realized he wasn’t looking at someone who could or should be a dictator. Instead he saw a guy nicknamed “Tumbledown Dick” and, to his enormous credit, he recognized that there was some justice in the label.
So on inheriting the office, if not exactly the power, when his father died of malaria contracted ravishing Ireland, he summoned a Parliament that wasn’t forcibly composed only of Puritan radicals. The army balked, and Richard Cromwell formally resigned, creating a power vacuum that particularly with general George Monck marching an army south led to a restoration of the Stuart monarchy and the ancient constitution.
It didn’t all go smoothly, of course. Although Charles II kept just this side of attempting absolute rule, his foolish brother and successor James II didn’t, so you got the Glorious Revolution. But on balance it is remarkable how little bloodshed and bitterness it took to wind up the Commonwealth and restore balance in English government.
Sometimes great historical events depend on someone stepping up and decisively affecting the course of history. For instance Churchill or Washington. But sometimes they depend on someone stepping down, because for every ten who fancy themselves a Churchill or Washington nine are not and eight are fools. And if Richard Cromwell was not exactly a fool, he was certainly sufficiently aware of his limitations not to get in the way of people sorting out the situation.
He had his reward, sort of. He went abroad in July 1660, and though he lived in poverty as well as obscurity for most of the rest of his life, he did ultimately return to England and live on the income from his estate in Hursley, dying in 1712 at 85 as the longest-lived ex-head of state in British history. Sadly he never saw his wife again after leaving for France; she remained loyal but died in 1675. And of his nine children, five of whom reached adulthood, none had children of their own so there are no descendants of the Cromwells either to make fatuous claims to be the rightful Lord Protector or to toast the man wise enough to know he wasn’t made of such stuff and whose wisest remark ever, too rarely imitated down to the present day, was “I resign.”