A review of Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers, by Michael Barone
In hindsight, the effects of England's Glorious Revolution of 1688 seem obvious. A popish and arbitrary English king out to emulate a popish and arbitrary French king, himself bent on establishing a "universal monarchy," was ousted by his liberty-loving subjects who invited his Calvinist Dutch son-in-law to rule. To ensure that future monarchs would be neither popish nor arbitrary, they also hedged in the powers of the crown with those of the Parliament and eventually made it illegal for any future monarch not to be a Protestant. Constitutionalism won out over absolutism, freedom over tyranny, tolerance over intolerance, enlightenment over benightedness. The Glorious Revolution was, in short, a decisive moment and, in its defense of liberty, a decidedly good thing. Michael Barone and Patrick Dillon certainly think so, and they argue as much in two excellent new books. Neither work makes claims to scholarly originality, but the narratives on offer in each are reliable. We should, however, be wary of accepting uncritically the lasting lessons that both Barone and Dillon draw from the Revolution. The results of the Revolution are less clear than either would have us believe.
Michael Barone's Our First Revolution explains the Glorious Revolution to an American audience with little or no familiarity with English history. Barone displays an impressive mastery of late 17th-century English politics. By the summer of 1688, the English political nation had had enough of James II. An out-of-the-closet Roman Catholic in Protestant England, James had succeeded his brother, Charles II, as king in 1685. Less than a decade earlier England had been pushed to the brink of internecine war when a charlatan revealed a fantastical "Popish Plot" to murder Charles and to re-Catholicize England by force. Yet, aside from a farcical rising led by the eldest of Charles's illegitimate children, national calm greeted James's ascent to the throne.
Charles II's response to the Popish Plot helps to explain why few were eager to block James's succession. After three Parliaments (1679, 1680, and 1681) tried legally to exclude his younger brother from succeeding him as king, Charles, like his father before him, decided to forgo Parliaments, to punish his enemies, and to reward his friends. His enemies were the Whigs, who favored liberalizing the penal laws against dissenting Protestants (but not Catholics), who supported exclusion of James, and who argued that any governor who violated his "contract" with the governed surrendered his right to wear the crown. The Whigs' enemies—and Charles's friends—were the Tories, who believed that monarchs were anointed by God and therefore that subjects should submit passively to their king's dictates in his capacity as head of both the English state and the English church. After the Exclusion Crisis of the early 1680s, Charles, using means both fair and foul, worked with the Tories to purge Whigs from nearly all positions of official power. Meanwhile, he supported an aggressively anti-Whig propaganda campaign that successfully mobilized "out-of-doors" opinion in favor of the Stuarts. By the time Charles died of a stroke in early 1685, the overwhelming majority of national and local government officials supported the Stuart monarchs, who also enjoyed widespread popular support.
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Something else, though, made the nation's political elite loath to bar James from succeeding to the throne: memory of a recent time when their world was turned upside down. During the 1640s, civil war had engulfed the entire British archipelago, because a sufficient proportion of the political nation had by then become convinced that Charles I was himself both popish and arbitrary. The hotter sort of Protestants saw crypto-Catholicism in the king's support of anti-Calvinists like Archbishop William Laud. (It was largely this deep suspicion of Laud that led to the great Puritan migration to Massachusetts in the 1630s.) Thinking that arbitrary government was popery's conjoined twin, many, though not most, British Protestants interpreted Charles I's decision to live without Parliament for over a decade and to wage war against Calvinist Scotland in the late 1630s as evidence of his tyranny.
Allegiances in the ensuing civil wars broke down largely along confessional lines. Those who favored an established Church that featured an episcopal ecclesiology and had the monarch as its supreme governor usually supported Charles; those who did not took up arms against him. The civil wars were religious and constitutional wars. And the results were horrific. A defeated Charles I, tried and convicted in a court of dubious constitutional validity, lost his head under the axe on January 30, 1649. Thousands of others died as a result of the wars as well—3.7% of the English population, 6% of the Scottish, and a whopping 41% of the Irish. The regime which ruled England for the next eleven years of "unkingship" drew its legitimacy primarily from the support of the army; and its head, Oliver Cromwell, who believed himself to be a "new Moses," tried to institute a "godly republic." The experiment failed miserably, and in 1660 a weary nation turned to the only person it could to restore some sort of normalcy—the murdered king's eldest son, Charles II.
The memory of the civil war cast a pall over English political life well into the 18th century and served as one of the most powerful prophylaxes against political revolt. Nevertheless, James, given a good hand to play in 1685, managed to bungle it in spectacularly bad fashion. In some sense, James was singularly unsuited to rule England. A military man through and through, he conceived of the relationship of a king to his subjects as that of an officer to his underlings. His religion also grated on his contemporaries, something Charles II realized all too well. "My brother will lose his kingdom by his bigotry and his soul for a lot of ugly trollops," Charles reportedly predicted. Indeed, James was a single-issue monarch whose aim was to return England to the Church of Rome. Recognizing that he could not do so forcibly, he used all legal (and marginally legal) tools at his disposal to create a free market in religion, believing that given an unfettered choice, most of his subjects would embrace Catholicism, as he himself had. The Tories, he reckoned, were too committed to passive obedience and non-resistance to stand up to him. He reckoned wrong, and the Glorious Revolution was to prove, among other things, that the Tories loved the Church of England more than they loved the Stuarts—or at least that they realized that James had become more of a threat to the stability of the realm than had the Whigs.
Watching all of this from across the English Channel was William of Orange, James's son-in-law. He himself had an idée fixe, preventing the would-be universal monarch Louis XIV from gobbling up the Netherlands. William hoped that his marriage to James's eldest daughter, Mary, would at the very least keep England on the sidelines of the Franco-Dutch wars. When Mary (a committed Protestant) eventually succeeded her father, England might even be counted up actively and materially to support the Dutch cause against the Sun King.
By mid-1688, though, things in England had begun to unravel for James, a process which dragged William into the center of English politics. James had not only attacked the Church of England's leaders, but also he had sired a son who, by virtue of primogeniture, immediately leap-frogged Mary in the queue to the throne. Faced with the prospect of a never-ending succession of Catholics on the throne, seven representatives of the English political elite invited William to invade their country. He obliged them and, on November 5, landed at the head of the largest invasion force since the Spanish Armada. Opposition to him melted quickly as James's leading generals defected and James himself wholly lost his nerve. Within a year, James was in exile on the Continent, William and Mary were on the throne, and England was well on the way to being dragged into continental wars that would massively increase the size of government and reshape the nation's finances forever.
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What should we make of all this? Michael Barone is convinced that the Glorious Revolution "turned out to have, and today still has, reverberations that sweep around the world." His is a political narrative with a message. To his way of thinking, the Glorious Revolution was an axial moment in the history of England, the West, and the world, for the post-revolutionary political settlement
changed England from a nation in which representative government was threatened to one where it was ingrained, from a nation in which liberties were based on tradition to one where they were based in part on positive law, from a nation where the place of religion was a matter of continued political dispute and even armed struggle to one where it became settled in a way that generally respected individual choice, from a nation that mostly kept apart from the wars of continental Europe to one that saw its duty as maintaining a balance of power there and around the world.
No mere coup d'état, this! The Glorious Revolution, Barone contends, fundamentally shaped the history of British North America and of the United States: the Glorious Revolution was, in other words, "our first revolution." The revolutionary settlement, for instance, "perpetuated and strengthened representative government in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and in the North American colonies as well." Likewise "[o]ur founding fathers' deliberate creation of a representative government, which quickly became a representative democracy, also owes much to the Revolution of 1688-1689" because the settlement "established the cockpit of colonial politics, of royal governors in tension with or opposition to representative assemblies—the institutional setting from which the American Revolution would arise." So too did the settlement provide "a template for the colonial rebels" who understood it to guarantee "parliamentary sovereignty, which is to say representative government." When our Constitution's framers wrote up the Bill of Rights, especially the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments, what did they have in mind? The 1689 English Bill of Rights, of course. The revolutionary settlement also served as the midwife of religious pluralism, since the Toleration Act (also 1689) "was a step toward allowing Christians of different denominations to live together in the same nation and a rejection of the idea that the Church of England should have a monopoly on worship in the land." The post-revolutionary financial revolution bolstered religious toleration because it "increased the political leverage of London's financial community, which in turn helped to create something like a religious balance of power." Hence Voltaire's famous remark about the London Exchange: "There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt…." Finally, and not least of all, following the revolution Britain "continued to follow, with some gaps and exceptions, an anti-hegemonic foreign policy in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries." This, in turn, dramatically circumscribed the potential for evil from the likes of Louis XIV, the Jacobins, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden, and the Iranian mullahs! Lest anyone miss the message, Barone concludes with the warning that William III's "daring and determination and perseverance should be an inspiration to any who are inclined to weariness and flagging resolve in trying times."
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Patrick Dillon's The Last Revolution makes only slightly less bold claims for the significance of the Glorious Revolution. Whereas Barone sticks closely to high politics, however, Dillon ranges widely across the cultural, intellectual, and social histories of the period. Charles, James, and William still dominate the scene, but a host of other characters crowd onto the stage, from Isaac Newton to Roger Morrice, from John Evelyn to Roger and Dudley North, from John Locke to John Vanbrugh. The result is a work that vividly conveys the degree to which the political revolution of the late 17th century emerged from a society in the throes of extraordinary cultural, intellectual, and economic change. Nevertheless, 1688 remains for Dillon a "turning point" on the path to the modern world. "Revolutions in freedom, in knowledge, and in risk—this was the triple legacy of 1688, and they would operate together to create a society quite unlike any other the world had seen," he writes. "The result of 1688, in other words, was to jam open the valve which controlled change…. It was the moment at which disturbing possibilities became a state of permanent change."
This is all heady stuff, perhaps too heady. It collapses a century of politics after 1688 into the Revolution itself. Eighteenth-century English politics remained the preserve of a remarkably narrow few, and the Whig oligarchy who ruled England from 1714 until the 1760s entrenched its power by a ruthless patronage system and by reducing the statutory frequency of elections from every three years to every seven. This evident fear of democracy points up another problem with Whig mythography, namely that what constituted the Glorious Revolution's meaning and legacy was subject to considerable debate almost from the moment James II fled to France. A full century after William and Mary's accession to the throne, Richard Price and Edmund Burke argued publicly whether anything really revolutionary had actually happened between 1688 and 1689. Even lessons which might have seemed self-evident were, in fact, contested. Consider, for instance, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. The devil there was in the details. Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that the king in Parliament had the right to oversee what they would soon call "the British Empire," but they disagreed about what kinds of laws Parliament had the right to make. Indeed, many colonists, even into the 1760s, argued after the fashion of Sir Edward Coke that, strictly speaking, Parliament was a "high court" that did not make law at all, a position that Englishmen of the day regarded as patently absurd. Considering that roughly one-third of British Americans were loyalists during the American Revolution and considering that the dominant political rituals in 18th-century British America were royalist (although the political practices were often rather republican), it is unclear that the American colonists were really defenders of the "authentic" Glorious Revolutionary settlement. Put another way, the American Revolution looks less like a revolution and more like a civil war: it was an event and a process which had more in common with England during the 1640s than with England during the late 1680s.
The parallels do not stop there, though, for there was a crucial confessional dimension to the American Revolution, as well. Even after the Glorious Revolution, England remained a confessional state with a legally established church and with Test and Corporation Acts that legally discriminated against Roman Catholics and religious nonconformists. Nor was religious bigotry alien to British North America: Massachusetts Congregationalists were for religious liberty of a peculiar sort. They wanted the right to establish the church of their choice. Those who disagreed could settle elsewhere. Contemporaries certainly drew straight lines of causation between theology and politics. Although Pennsylvania's Quakers tended to be loyalists, and the great Virginians were members of the Anglican Church, it is generally true that the stoutest opponents (on both sides of the Atlantic) of the British policies in North America tended to be dissenters and the most strident loyalists were those most committed to the Church of England. The American Revolution, then, was a civil war with both political and religious dimensions.
Rather than perpetuating and strengthening representative government in Ireland, for instance, the Glorious Revolution's aftermath was actually a disaster for Irish Catholics, who constituted nearly 90% of the island's inhabitants. The English state forcibly confiscated land owned by Ireland's Catholics and the penal laws of the 18th century dramatically restricted their civil, religious, and political rights. After 1691, only Protestants could serve in the Irish Parliament. One might also ask whether post-revolutionary English foreign policy really aimed at being "anti-hegemonic." The English were certainly hegemonic in North America after walloping the French during the Seven Years' War.
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These points may sound like the carpings of an academic historian standing athwart readable popular history and shouting, "It's more complicated than that!" There can be no doubt that the Whig interpretation of the Glorious Revolution's legacy continues to have legs because it contains some powerful truths. By the same token, it risks glossing over the confessional and political continuities which were so marked across the 17th and 18th centuries. More importantly, Whig constitutional triumphalism papers over much that was inglorious about the Glorious Revolution and its legacy, and obscures the crooked trail which history in fact followed.