John Streater

by Nick

Coming across the possibility that John Streater might have been the author of The Perfect Politician – see here then here for the backstory – has sparked my curiosity. I wanted to find out more, so here are the fruits of my research.

Streater’s first known pamphlet was A Glympse of that Jewel of 1652. This was written while Streater was serving in Ireland. It was printed in London via the radical bookseller Giles Calvert, who was notorious for publishing works by writers such as Lilburne and Overton. Releasing the pamphlet was an act for which Streater was cashiered. The pamphlet sets out an argument, drawn mostly from Greek and Roman classical examples, for a Commonwealth in which the people of England are fully involved – ie with a properly robust and healthy public sphere. There is a need to be obedient to a higher powers, but only insofar as is necessary for the common good. Streater argues that Rome’s decline in glory from republic to empire was due to “persons in great trust” enlarging their powers by insinuating themselves into public favour. Therefore representatives of the people should be able to vote in fair elections, and those in power should not have titles or bodyguards. The model should be the Roman Republic or Lycurgus’s Sparta, not Alexander – who became a tyrant due to followers convincing him he was a god – or Nimrod – founder of the first empire after the flood.

Streater next crops up after his return to England from Ireland, just before the expulsion of the Rump. After witnessing a speech by Cromwell to the Council of Officers at the Cockpit, he wrote Ten Queries, criticising the illegal removal of an elected government ro replace it with an unknown one, and claiming that Cromwell had had a choice between recruiting a new Parliament with a lifespan of 6 months, or putting power in the hands of the few, as wanted by the army.

Streater is also presumed to be the author of a pamphlet called The Picture of a New Courtier, which appeared in 1656 and was cast about the streets. The pamphlet is by an I.S. and bears many of Streater’s hallmarks. It sets out a dialogue between a “Mr Timeserver” and a “Mr Plain-heart”, in which the Coomonwealth is attacked by the latter. Both participants have been soldiers at St. Albans, where Streater may plausibly have also been. And thematically, the pamphlet deals with familiar themes: sneering at the sycophants surrounding Cromwell, and criticism of Mr Timeserver for trimming his republican ideals at the first sniff of power.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how these themes also crop up in The Perfect Politician. The author of this deployed allusions to Caesar and Alexander: “nothing could satisfie Caesar’s Ambition, but a perpetual Dictatorship; nor Alexander’s, but to have more world’s to conquer; and why then should our Cromwell, having the same aspiration (and inspiration above them) be satisfied with less than a perpetual Protectorship?” (pp.252-253). It also shares Streater’s theme of preventing a single person from assuming power lest it corrupt, and the ambiguous treatment of Cromwell – a man to be respected for his achievements but also reviled for turning against the good old cause. It’s ironic that Streater himself seems to have grudgingly accommodated himself to the regime ushered in by the restoration of Charles II.

Streater was also a printer as well as soldier and author, and it would be interesting to do an analysis of these pamphlets in terms of who printed them, and whether they were connected to radical networks – it’s likely that Streater was connected to Leveller printers during the late 1640s. There’s a fascinating article by Jason Peacey in the latest edition of Cromwelliana about techniques for doing this which I would recommend digging out if you get the chance. From that article I also learned that Peacey is organising a conference about George Thomason with the aim of reassessing his career, networks and impact, which should be interesting.