The Magazine

Glorious, Indeed

What the English Revolution of 1688 meant.

Jul 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 42 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Our First Revolution

The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers

by Michael Barone

Crown, 352 pp., $25.95

Michael Barone is a distinguished political analyst, commentator, journalist, and occasional historian, the author of two books on recent American history. He has now ventured on a subject that is more than three centuries and a full continent removed from his normal habitat. Even more venturesome, he is invading the turf of professional historians, including the most venerable and awesome of them all, Thomas Babington Macaulay. Barone's present work is not only on the subject Macaulay made his own, the English Revolution of 1688-89--on a much, much smaller scale, to be sure; Barone's fewer than 250 pages of text compared with Macaulay's five volumes, each more than twice that length--it is also (and this is no less daring) in the narrative mode of Macaulay's work.

In academia today, narrative history is as unfashionable as Macaulay himself. It is said to "privilege" political events over the social and economic forces that truly drive history, and, worse still, to privilege the individuals and elites that happen to dominate politics over the "anonymous" masses that are, or should be, the proper subjects of history--"history from below," as is said. The public has no such qualms. The histories that grace the bestseller lists are, for the most part, narratives, written by nonacademics and a few dissident academics. Barone's book is unashamedly and unapologetically in this genre. It is a detailed chronological narrative of the events (political, diplomatic, military) and the individuals (high-born and high-powered) that contributed to the English Revolution --a tale well told.

The title Our First Revolution is doubly provocative. "Our" refers not to England (whose revolution is the subject of the book) but to America, for whom 1688-89 was, according to Barone, the "founding event." But he makes it "their"--England's--"first revolution" as well, denying that distinction to the dramatic (revolutionary, one might think) events of 1641-60, complete with a regicide, a republic, radical ideologies, and massive deaths. Barone cites the astonishing statistics: 190,000 deaths in England, 3.7 percent of the population, a higher proportion than in either World War I or World War II; 60,000 in Scotland, 6 percent of the population; and 660,000 in Ireland, 41 percent of the population! (These figures include deaths from disease and starvation as well as battle casualties.) This is the first of the many curiosities that enliven this book: the bestowing of the term revolution, as an honorific, to a brief and relatively bloodless affair, the "Glorious Revolution," rather than to the prolonged and bloody period known as the "Civil War."

Another curiosity is the crucial role played by foreign affairs and foreign powers in this English Revolution, so that a good part of the narrative takes us abroad to the Netherlands and France. If religion was the primary cause of the revolution--James II's attempts to subvert the Church of England by suspending the penal laws against Catholics and appointing them to public office (he himself having been converted to Catholicism long before he became king)--the exacerbating factor was his alliance with Catholic France in the war against the Protestant Netherlands. It was the need to finance the war that gave Parliament the opportunity to support the Church, challenge the king, and thus play into the hands of William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands. William had every interest in joining the fray. First, because of the war itself, which had a religious as well as an imperial dimension (the Netherlands, with a population one-tenth that of France, was the only Protestant power to resist Catholic France); and not incidentally because, as the husband of Mary Stuart, James's daughter, he had good reason to aspire to the throne of England.

Or at least, he had good reason to do so until June 1688 when, three years after James II's ascension to the throne, the queen gave birth to a son, thus displacing Mary (and William) as the presumptive heir. In England, Parliament and Protestants had even more cause for anxiety as they contemplated a succession of Catholic monarchs. (The deaths in infancy of the queen's earlier children and her repeated miscarriages fanned rumors that the new child was "suppositious," not really the queen's.) Six months later, William, abetted by the Whigs and even some Tories, invaded England. After feeble and futile attempts to ward off the invasion (Barone's chapter is called "The Civil War that Did Not Happen"), James took refuge in France with the queen and child. He returned once in a brief attempt to rally his forces, and when that failed, escaped again--with William's connivance, it was thought.