Wednesday, May 30, 2007

1688 and All That: how the "Glorious" Revolution led to the American one

Another history lesson today. I've been reading the authors latest book - "A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900" - and it's a great addition to Winston Churchill's series of the same name, which ended it's narrative in 1900. This episode in history gets scant attention outside college history curriculum these days, and yet it was not always so. There was a great "Masterpiece Theater" series on this period done in the early 70's, if any of you can remember, but I have not been able to find it since then...T

When the English-speaking peoples consider the forces that have made them the global hegemonic political culture since the mid-19th century--representative institutions, the rule of law, religious toleration and property rights among them--they look back to Britain's "Glorious" Revolution of 1688. What at first looks merely like a minor coup d'état that replaced the Catholic King James II with his Protestant Dutch nephew and son-in-law, King William III, was much more than that. It heralded nothing less than a complete realignment of worldview for the Anglosphere. It changed everything.
Michael Barone, the distinguished political commentator and co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics," demonstrates both an encyclopedic knowledge of late 17th-century European politics and a keen appreciation of their long-term implications. He sees in the Glorious Revolution--which he dubs The First Revolution--the genesis of "changes in English law, governance and politics that turned out to be major advances for representative government, guaranteeing liberties, global capitalism, and a foreign policy of opposing hegemonic powers." He argues that it was essentially in defense of the rights won in 1688 that the American colonists rose against George III in 1776.

The handful of Whig aristocrats who secretly invited Prince William of Orange over from Holland to overthrow their anointed monarch, James, were undeniably rebels and traitors, as were, of course, the American colonists who signed the Declaration of Independence. Yet they both acted in the name of an ancient, inherent, legitimate and noble cause: liberty. English common-law rights dating back to Magna Carta were perceived to be under threat from King James, and they trumped whatever allegiance might have been owed him. The Founding Fathers were thus repeating 88 years later, and in an American and republican context, largely what the "first" revolutionaries had done in 1688.

What makes "Our First Revolution" stupendously better than a political tract or a work of straightforward narrative history is Mr. Barone's sense of how close the Glorious Revolution came to failing. The whole adventure was predicated on a series of hideous risks. If it had fallen at one of any number of hurdles, the repercussions for both Britain and, later, America would have been incalculable. It is a story of midnight escapes, invisible ink, secret passageways, royal nosebleeds, base betrayals and amazingly few high ideals. William of Orange may not set foot in England until page 155 of Mr. Barone's 243 pages--at Torbay, in Devon, in November 1688--but "Our First Revolution" has all the elements of a political thriller.

Although James II stood for Catholic obscurantism, pro-French appeasement, and Stuart paternalism and monopoly--all of which would have held Britain back politically and commercially in the 18th century--it is hard not to sympathize with his Lear-like cries of anguish as both his daughters, Mary and Anne, betray him in order to safeguard their claims to the throne. Meanwhile, William rightly comes across, in Mr. Barone's account, as more interested in protecting his native Holland from France than in extending the liberties of a new kingdom.

James was brave throughout his life except at the time that courage was most needed; in the weeks immediately after William landed, he was curiously indecisive. Lest we forget, he was the man after whom New York City was named: As duke of York, he had successfully fought the Dutch in America 20 years before. Yet in 1688, as his army steadily defected to the Protestants--led across the channel by Winston Churchill's ancestor John Churchill (later Duke of Marlborough)--James decided to flee to France, fearing imprisonment in the Tower of London. By the time he got around to fighting--at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland in 1690--it was too late.

Yet had James II not made myriad errors after succeeding his brother, King Charles II, in 1683--errors that help to trigger William's later intervention--"French-style absolutism might really have sprung into life" in England, Mr. Barone writes, perhaps "in late 1688 or early 1689." Such absolutism was doing well on the Continent, especially under Louis XIV, and James was busy trying to buy the coming general election and pack the House of Commons. When an heir was born to James in June 1688, establishing the Catholic succession, the moment of decision had arrived: William had to invade then or never. As it was, he risked a difficult sea crossing; the English Channel in November was treacherous throughout the age of sail. In the event, about 21,000 Dutchmen decided the matter.

Everything that flowed from the Whig victory of 1688--limited government, the Bank of England, tradable national debt, triennial Parliaments, mercantilism, free enterprise, an aggressively anti-French foreign policy, the union with Scotland, eventually the Hanoverian Succession and the Industrial Revolution--combined to make the English-speaking peoples powerful. Mr. Barone proves beyond doubt how much the Glorious Revolution inspired the Founding Fathers to launch their own, with Virginia gentlemen farmers seeing themselves as the heirs of England's revolutionary aristocrats. The 1689 Bill of Rights in Britain thus unquestionably paved the way to the American Bill of Rights of 1791.
To comprehend how America's birth pangs came about--and why its title deeds were drawn up in the way they were--it is therefore crucial to understand the ideals and passions of 1688. The very best introduction is this well-researched, well-written, thought-provoking book.
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