The Magazine

Glorious, Indeed

What the English Revolution of 1688 meant.

Jul 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 42 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

By mid-December William was installed in St. James's Palace. Three months later, after repeated compromises by both Houses, and the intervention of William himself, Parliament issued and William agreed to what became known as the "Declaration of Rights," which set down the conditions under which William and Mary became king and queen. That Declaration, officially passed as a statute with royal approval in December 1689, bore the title "An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, and Settling the Succession of the Crown." It itemized the dozen ways in which James had tried to "subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom." Some involved the usurpation of Parliament's rights: suspending and executing laws, levying money, keeping a standing army and quartering soldiers, creating an ecclesiastical commission, all without the consent of Parliament.

Others were violations of individual rights: disarming Protestants and arming Papists, violating the freedom of parliamentary elections, abusing the judicial system, exacting excessive fines, and imposing illegal and cruel punishments. Another list asserted the "ancient rights and liberties" of Parliament; these were essentially the obverse of the abuses.

James, the Declaration made clear, had not only acted "utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statutes and freedom of this realm," he had also "abdicated the government," making the throne "thereby vacant." That vacancy was thus filled by the Prince of Orange, whom "it hath pleased Almighty God to make the glorious instrument of delivering this kingdom from popery and arbitrary power." (This may be the inspiration for the term "Glorious Revolution," which came into usage almost immediately.) The Declaration went on to specify the line of succession: William and Mary were to have the crown during their lifetimes, after which it would pass to the queen's heirs and, in default of such heirs, to her sister Anne and her heirs. Only in the lack of the latter would it revert to the offspring of William (from a second marriage). Thus, the House of Orange was installed in England, but only partially and temporarily. It was in accord with these terms that, on William's death in 1702, Anne Stuart succeeded to the throne.

Reading Barone's account of the events leading up to the Declaration, and reading the document itself in the appendix, one might conclude that if the military phase of the revolution was a "civil war that did not happen," so the parliamentary phase might suggest a "revolution that did not happen." The Declaration echoed the assertions made in and out of Parliament that James had "abdicated." He had not been deposed, let alone executed (as Charles I had been in 1649). The statements of grievances and rights were couched in terms of "known laws" and "ancient rights and liberties." Again, it was James who had violated those laws and Parliament that was affirming old rights, not claiming new ones (certainly nothing like natural rights). And it was not religious liberty but a Church establishment that was being defended against James. In a sense, it was James who was promoting religious liberty by opening the door to Catholics and even Dissenters. Finally, the new regime itself was not really new; Mary was, after all, James II's daughter, a legitimate Stuart, and William was co-monarch only because he was Mary's husband.

This was the revolution--a restoration more than a revolution--that Edmund Burke so eloquently memorialized. On the centenary of the English Revolution, in the shadow of the French Revolution that had just taken place--a revolution that was indeed a revolution--Burke was moved to reflect upon his country's very different revolution. Quoting the title of the English Declaration, he italicized the words "settling" and "succession." The rights and succession, he pointed out, were "declared in one body, and bound indissolubly together."

Against those of his own countrymen (Richard Price, most notably, but his remarks apply to Thomas Paine as well) who were celebrating the English Revolution as having given the people the right to "choose our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct, and to form a government for ourselves"--in effect, to "elect our kings" --Burke insisted that the English had, in fact, renounced that right "for themselves, and for all their posterity for ever." The Revolution was "a parent of settlement, and not a nursery of future revolutions." It was made "to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty" ("ancient," again, italicized). This was the "pedigree of our liberties" which had come down to the English as an "inheritance," a "hereditary title"--an "entailed inheritance," moreover, that they could not abdicate.