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Our First Revolution

The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers

Our First Revolution by Michael Barone
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The ideals of freedom and individual rights that inspired America’s Founding Fathers did not spring from a vacuum. Along with many other defining principles of our national character, they can be traced directly back to one of the most pivotal events in British history—the late-seventeenth-century uprising known as the Glorious Revolution.

In a work of popular history that stands with recent favorites such as David McCullough’s 1776 and Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers, Michael Barone brings the story of this unlikely and largely bloodless revolt to American readers and reveals that, without the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution may never have happened.

Unfolding in 1688–1689, Britain’s Glorious Revolution resulted in the hallmarks of representative government, guaranteed liberties, the foundations of global capitalism, and a foreign policy of opposing aggressive foreign powers. But as Barone shows, there was nothing inevitable about the Glorious Revolution. It sprang from the character of the English people and depended on the talents, audacity, and good luck of two men: William of Orange (later William III of England), who launched history’s last successful cross-channel inva sion, and John Churchill, an ancestor of Winston, who commanded the forces of the deposed James II but crossed over to support William one fateful November night.

The story of the Glorious Revolution is a rich and riveting saga of palace intrigue, loyalty and shocking betrayal, and bold political and military strategizing. With narrative drive, a sure command of historical events, and unforgettable portraits of kings, queens, soldiers, parliamentarians, and a large cast of full-blooded characters, Barone takes an episode that has fallen into unjustified obscurity and restores it to the prominence it deserves. Especially now, as we face enemies who wish to rid the world of the lasting legacies of the Glorious Revolution—democracy, individual rights, and capitalism among them—it is vitally important that we understand the origins of these blessings.


From the Hardcover edition.
Crown Publishing Group; May 2007
ISBN 9780307394385
Download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: Our First Revolution
Author: Michael Barone
 
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Excerpt
Chapter 1


The Improbable Revolution

The First Revolution: what is generally known as the Glorious Revolution. In recent years Americans have been devouring books on our nation’s Founding Fathers—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton—some written by academic historians, others by gifted professional writers. As these writers help us understand, the Founders did not spring from a historical vacuum. Before the break with the Crown, they regarded themselves as Englishmen, as inheritors of the system of government and the traditional liberties of England. As they moved daringly into a revolutionary and republican future, they looked back on a heritage that was shaped by many historical events. Not least among them was what most Englishmen referred to as the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89. This term referred to the series of events that resulted in the ouster of King James II and the installation of King William III and Queen Mary II, and in 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 on the European continent and in the world beyond.

The First Revolution, as it will be called here, was a reference point, an example, indeed a glowing example, for the American Founders. The Founding Fathers began their rebellion not by rejecting the achievements of the Glorious Revolution, but by arguing that Parliament and King George III were denying them their rights as Englishmen that were gained in that Revolution and the revolutionary settlement—the laws passed in 1689 and the 1690s. It is true that as the Founding Fathers created their own revolution and formed their republic, they did not fully accept the Revolutionary settlement—the set of laws and customs established during and immediately following the Glorious Revolution. The new nation would have no monarchy or titled nobility, no religious tests for public office, and no national established church. But the founders also self-consciously copied some features of the Revolutionary settlement, from yearly sessions of Congress to the establishment of a national bank and a funded debt to the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

The Glorious Revolution has long been recognized in Britain as a founding event that has shaped the character of the nation ever since. But this First Revolution has gotten much less attention in the United States. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, academic historians in this country as well as in Britain have devoted much more attention to the events of 1641–60, events that brought to the fore radicals who could be seen as ancestors of the Marxist revolutionaries of the twentieth century. The Glorious Revolution was seen, in contrast, as something in the nature of a coup d’état brought off by royals and nobles, a shuffling of power between dead white males (never mind that important parts were played by Princesses Mary and Anne, Queen Mary Beatrice, and Sarah Churchill). But there is a strong argument that the events of 1641–60 were less than consequential in shaping the English polity and what would become the American inheritance than was the Revolution of 1688–89 and the Revolutionary settlement that was worked out in the 1690s. Those changes proved to be far more enduring.

The Revolution of 1688–89 was the first change of government in England that was at the time called a revolution. Twentieth-century historians often refer to the events of 1641–60 as the English Revolution,1 but this complicated series of events—described by recent historians as three separate civil wars and a republican interregnum—was not called a revolution in the seventeenth century.2 In contrast, the events of 1688–89 were the first to be widely, almost universally, labeled a revolution by contemporaries.3

The First Revolution was a tremendously consequential event and a tremendously improbable one. “I cannot forbear remarking,” wrote the Cumberland landowner and regional political magnate Sir John Lowther in his Memoirs of the Reign of James II, “how wonderfullie this thing succeeded in opposition to so many visible and apparent accidents, anie one of which whereof they had happened, the whole design must certainly have miscarried.”4 It was, writes historian J. G. A. Pocock, an “amazing and unpredicted transaction,”5 or, as the historian Paul Rahe writes, it “was by no means inevitable. It more nearly resembled a freak accident.”6 William of Orange, stadholder of the Netherlands, assembled an army variously estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 men and a flotilla of five hundred ships, crossed the English Channel in the usually wind-tossed month of November, then pushed James II to order his army to retreat without a battle. Princess Mary, William’s wife, and Princess Anne cooperated in the ouster of their father, James II. It was, as Pocock continues, “a spectacular display of reason of state rising above the restraints of common morality; daughters dethroned their father, even the sanitized version of King Lear was hard to perform for many years, and what William of Orange and John Churchill severally did is still enough to take your breath away if you think about it.”7 Or, as the Calvinist and usually humorless William said to the Anglican clergyman Gilbert Burnet after his troops successfully landed in England, “Well, Doctor, what do you think of predestination now?”8

The First Revolution happened in an England and a Europe very different from today’s. This mostly bloodless revolution occurred after more than a century of religious wars. In England, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church when denied a divorce, and in 1532 was declared the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Under Henry and his young successor Edward VI, the Church of England adopted many Protestant doctrines: the king was the Supreme Head of the Church, monasteries were closed, English translations of the Bible and an English Prayer Book were introduced.9 Edward died at 16 and was succeeded in 1553 by his older sister Mary I, who returned England to Catholicism and executed some 300 Protestants. She died in 1558 and her Protestant sister Elizabeth I reestablished the Church of England.

Despite the established Church of England, many forms of belief persisted under Elizabeth and her successor James I (1603–25). There were Puritans, a loosely defined group who wanted to simplify Church ritual and belief, and Presbyterians, who believed that the Church should be governed by elders selected by congregations rather than by bishops selected by the king. There were, living secretly and also in the open, Catholics who remained loyal to the Church of Rome. Religious differences played an important role in the Civil War that broke out between Charles I and Parliament in 1642 and that resulted in the execution of the king in 1649. The parliamentary governments led by Oliver Cromwell and others banned Church of England clergy from preaching, ordered Catholic priests out of the kingdom, and stripped churches of ornament and paintings and broke stained-glass windows. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the Church of England was again established. But in the years since Charles I was executed, there had grown up Dissenting Protestant sects that would in time be known as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers. The treatment of these Dissenting Protestants and of Catholics became lively political issues in Charles II’s reign and that of his brother James II (1685–88). 10

These religious struggles in England went on simultaneously but not in close connection with the struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism in continental Europe. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg in 1517 and defended his doctrines at the Diet of Worms, summoned by the young Emperor Charles V in 1521. Lutheranism and other forms of Protestantism spread in what is now Germany, Scandinavia, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary through much of the sixteenth century. The Peace of Augsburg of 1555 was based on the principle of cuius regio eius religio: the ruler of each state would determine its religion. Protestantism seemed to prevail over about half of Christian Europe.

The Catholic Church responded to this Reformation with a Counter-Reformation. The Council of Trent, concluded in 1563, reaffirmed traditional Catholic doctrine and ordered internal reforms of the Church. Counter-Reformation Catholicism was characterized by a rigorous faith, elaborate ceremony with incense and inspiring music, beautifully decorated baroque churches to inspire awe and to make the Mass an emotionally moving experience. The baroque churches still found today from Rome to France and Germany, Bohemia and Poland, Spain and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of Latin America are concrete evidence of the confidence and verve of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church.

In different countries Catholics went on the offensive. In France, leading Protestant Huguenots were murdered in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572; after the Huguenot Henri IV became king in 1589, he faced civil war and converted to Catholicism, concluding, “Paris is worth a Mass.” In what is now Germany, the Catholic Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperors went on the offensive in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), and Protestantism was extirpated in what are now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and large parts of Germany. The treaties of Westphalia ended this conflict in 1648, recognizing the independence of states, including those within the Holy Roman Empire, and the right of their rulers to determine their religion. The United Provinces of the Netherlands, which had been fighting their Catholic Spanish overlords since 1568, were recognized as an independent Protestant nation, outside the empire. But the overall result of these religious wars was that by the late seventeenth century about two-thirds of the people of Christian Europe lived in Catholic domains and “between 1590 and 1690 the geographical reach of Protestantism shrank from one-half to one-fifth of the land area of the continent.”11 “Every observer of the contemporary scene knew that effectively the principle of cuius regio eius religio operated,” writes the historian K. H. D. Haley. “No Catholic king ruled over a Protestant people.”12

England and the United Provinces, the two states intimately involved in the First Revolution, were thus small Protestant outliers on the northwest fringes of a mostly Catholic continent. They were also exceptions to the trend in Europe toward stability imposed by absolutist governments.13 “In 1590,” writes Reformation historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, “around half of the European land-mass was under the control of Protestant governments and/or Protestant culture: in 1690 the figure was only around a fifth.”14 Christian Europe, that is Europe excluding the Ottoman Empire, which came up to the gates of Vienna in 1683, had about 100 million people at the time of the Glorious Revolution. England had about 5 million,15 its sister kingdoms Scotland and Ireland about 1 and 2 million respectively. Britain’s North American colonies had about 250,000. London was the one huge city in the British Isles, with 375,000 people around 1650 and 490,000 around 1700, about 10 percent of England’s population. The next largest town, Norwich, had only 30,000, and there were about 60 towns with populations between 2,500 and 11,000.16 The United Provinces of the Netherlands had 2 million people. In contrast, France was a demographic monster, with 20 million people, and there were about 18 million in the many states that now make up Germany. Spain, sapped by constant warfare and colonial overextension, had about 7.5 million and the Spanish Netherlands, approximately today’s Belgium, another 1.5 million; Spain’s Latin American colonies had approximately 10 million, while the English North American colonies had only 280,000.17

France was not only the most populous nation in Europe, but by many measures the richest. Amsterdam and London had trade ties to large parts of the world, and the United Provinces and England had large navies; France could not only afford a large navy, but fielded huge armies besides. Its rich farmlands produced every nontropical crop, and its state-protected industries produced unmatched luxury goods. In the 1650s France had been preoccupied by the civil war known as the Fronde. But that was over by 1661, when Cardinal Mazarin died and the 23-year-old Louis XIV began 54 years of personal rule. Louis soon embarked on military campaigns to expand his kingdom. He started major wars in each decade. His forces were led by able generals and by the King himself on occasion; his military engineers and fortifications were the best in Europe. The French army invaded the United Provinces in 1672 with 130,000 men, outnumbering the Dutch forces by four to one.18

Louis also sought to expand the realm of Catholicism. “Louis spurred on the Duke of Savoy,” writes MacCulloch, “in his murderous campaign against his Protestant subjects: Louis overturned his grandfather’s religious settlement for France by revoking the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Louis conquered largely Protestant lands of the Empire in Alsace, finally making a Catholic Strasbourg out of Martin Bucer’s proud Strassburg, which long before had been the prime candidate to lead the Protestant world.”19

Louis XIV’s France, with its commitment to Catholicism and its trend toward absolutist government, seemed the wave of the future in the 1670s and 1680s. It was the largest nation-state and militarily the mightiest. Its king consolidated his power by setting aside institutions that traditionally limited royal power, like the Estates General, which did not meet from 1614 to 1789, and consigned the formerly powerful regional nobles to the ritualized court life of first the Louvre and then Versailles. Other rulers followed his example. In Bavaria and Brandenburg forceful rulers broke the power of the estates, as did the rulers of the Rhenish Palatinate and Baden. A similar process occurred in the domains of the Austrian Hapsburgs. Denmark and, a quarter-century later, Sweden developed absolutist government, while in Spain and Portugal the power of the legislative assemblies, the Cortes, was sharply curtailed.20 Many in the smaller German states feared the trend would prevail there.21 Republicanism was on the wane, alive in the bustling Netherlands and backward Switzerland, ailing in a declining Venice and extinct in most of the rest of Italy (with the conspicuous exception of the small city of Lucca), defunct after the Restoration in England. The forces resisting absolutism were those asserting ancient, arguably feudal, rights, and local particularity: the vestiges of the past. Absolutism, seemingly modern and efficient, seemed the way of the future.22

Yet in the long run absolutism did not prevail. Out of one corner of Europe, in the British Isles, an alternative emerged, constitutional monarchy with limits on government, guaranteed rights, relatively benign religious toleration, and free market global capitalism. After the Glorious Revolution the merchant class as well as the nobility successful cabined in the power of king and prince. The nobility did not totally dominate the life of society, and merchants and entrepreneurs were left free to trade and innovate.23 And here the key event was the First Revolution, in which the Protestant stadholder of the Netherlands supplanted the Catholic king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and ensured that those countries would continue on a course very different from that of France and its continental imitators. This First Revolution was thus a long step forward toward the kind of society we take for granted now. It provided the backdrop for the amazing growth, prosperity, and military success of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain—and for the American Revolution and the even more amazing growth, prosperity, and military success of the United States.

Here is the improbable story of how it happened.


From the Hardcover edition.