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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Burke's name does not appear in Barone's book--for good reason. Burke's revolution is not Barone's because the latter sees it in the context not of the French Revolution but of the American Revolution. And for the Americans, it was a revolution, their first revolution. In one sense, even in this reading, the American Revolution would appear to be a conservative revolution. The Americans were only claiming the rights and liberties that were theirs by virtue of their English heritage. They were abiding by the settlement of 1688; it was the English Parliament, having become corrupt and tyrannical, that was violating that settlement. Yet in appealing to that settlement, Barone claims, the Americans were affirming the principle that was revolutionary for England and for America alike: the principle of "parliamentary sovereignty, which is to say representative government."

Oddly enough, in spite of the title, the American Revolution occupies little space in the book: the opening paragraphs in which the English Revolution appears as a "glowing example" for the American Founders (as it was also a "founding event" for the British) and half-a-dozen pages toward the end where the settlement is said to provide a "template for the colonial rebels." Apart from the crucial idea of parliamentary sovereignty, the English Declaration of Rights, Barone points out, inspired key provisions of the American Bill of Rights: Amendments about the bearing of arms, the quartering of troops, searches and seizures, self-incrimination, jury trials, and cruel and unusual punishments--but nothing, he adds, about freedom of religion, freedom of expression, or freedom of the press.

"The new nation would have no monarchy or titled nobility, no religious tests for public office, and no national established church," writes Barone. He does not mention other not inconsiderable departures from the English model, such as a written constitution and a system of checks and balances designed precisely to limit parliamentary sovereignty. Nor does he mention the Federalist Papers, which encapsulate so much of the spirit and substance of the American Revolution and for which there was no equivalent in England.

Most conspicuously, the English model differed from the American on the subject of religion. If the English settlement was "a step forward for religious liberty," as Barone says, it was, as he also makes clear, "a very limited advance," certainly not religious liberty as the Americans understood it. The Toleration Act of 1689 removed the penalties imposed on those Dissenters who accepted the Trinity but did not attend Church of England services, but it did not admit even them to public office, and it retained the penalties for non-Trinitarians. (Not until the mid-19th century were the restrictions on Catholics, Dissenters, and Jews lifted.)

In two other areas, Barone attributes to the English a revolutionary impact upon America and the world. These emerged not in the revolution itself but in its aftermath. They were, as the title of his final chapter puts it, "Revolutionary Reverberations." Both were outcomes of the war with France that William pursued so energetically during much of the 1690s. The first was financial: the funding of the national debt and the establishment of the Bank of England, which enabled England to finance the war and had the more important result of making London the financial center of Europe (supplanting, ironically, Amsterdam, William's first domain). A century later Alexander Hamilton "consciously followed the example" of the English and adopted the same measures, to equally good effect, in America. (But he could have taken his example from the Dutch, who had established both the funded debt and the national bank almost a century earlier than the English.)

The second was the foreign policy implicit in the war. William may have waged the war against France partly to advance the cause of Protestantism, but in the process, he introduced a new principle in European affairs, the balance of power "against a hegemonic and tyrannical power," the model for the "anti-hegemonic foreign policy" that has guided both Britain and the United States until the present.

The English Revolution as America's "first revolution"--it is an intriguing idea and has caught the fancy of reviewers and publicists who make it sound as if that is the dominant theme of the book. But it does an injustice to a book that is only peripherally about America and is rather a valuable and most readable contribution to English history. In blessedly short space--short compared not only with Macaulay's five volumes but with most works of history--it depicts the reality of the English Revolution in all its particularity and complexity. This is not "Whig history" in the pejorative sense of that term, a history progressing neatly and assuredly, almost predictably and providentially, to its happy end of liberty, prosperity, and well-being. On the contrary, Barone repeatedly has occasion to remind us how "improbable" that end was. That word appears early in the book where the English Revolution is described as "a tremendously consequential event and a tremendously improbable one," and at the very end where that "improbable Revolution" is seen as "indispensable in bringing into being the world we live in today."

In the course of Our First Revolution we witness again and again the "accidents," "contingencies," and "improbabilities" that went into this fortuitous event. Indeed, the Revolution was so little inevitable, that having improbably happened, it could have been reversed: "Even after William III was installed as King, the success of his Revolution was still contingent. . . . The restoration of the Stuarts remained a lively possibility, and one sought by many in Britain, for more than fifty years after the coronation of William III & Mary II."

Happily, Barone hastens to add, the Revolution did endure.

This is the great virtue of narrative history; it comes as close to the existential reality as any history can. But it has its perils and limitations. It is not easy, in a rigorously chronological account, to make room for ideas that may have been as much the reality of history as laws and wars. John Locke, for example, earns exactly five citations in this book: three passing references to his name, two sentences in which he appears as the mentor of Lord Shaftesbury, the Whig notable, and one long sentence explaining that his Two Treatises of Government, often taken to justify the Revolution, had actually been written in 1683 in response to other events and had not been published until 1690. (Locke wrote it while he was living in the Netherlands, having taken refuge there with Shaftesbury, who had been accused of treason for, among other things, sponsoring legislation to exclude Catholics from the succession.)

But it was Locke himself, not later historians, who fostered the idea that the book was a defense of the Revolution. In the preface written after his return to England early in 1689 (in the company of Mary) he paid tribute to "our Great Restorer, Our present King William," who occupies the throne with "the Consent of the People," and to the People themselves, "whose love of their Just and Natural Rights . . . saved the nation when it was on the very brink of Slavery and Ruin."

Whatever its original intention, the Two Treatises was the most powerful philosophical rationale of the Revolution written at the time (and, probably, since), worthy, at the very least, of appearing in the final chapter together with the other "revolutionary reverberations." Certainly it deserves it for the sake of the American Revolution, where the Lockean ideas of natural rights, the right of property, civil society, the social contract, and the consent of the people played so prominent a part. The book may have been only a justification after the fact of the English Revolution, but it was surely a justification before the fact of the American Revolution. It also bears out Barone's thesis about the relation between the two revolutions. If Locke was not as influential in the American Revolution as some historians have made him out to be, he was influential enough. And he was an important link between the two revolutions--a common denominator, one might say.

There is one other ghost hovering over this book: Macaulay. This is even more curious, because in the acknowledgments at the very end, Barone tells us that 20 years ago, when he decided to write a narrative history (about 20th-century America), he bought, as a model for such a history, the five-volume set of Macaulay's The History of England from the Accession of James II. (The first volume had been published in 1849; the last, posthumously, in 1861.) With no prior knowledge of the period, Barone says, he found it difficult to keep the characters straight. But he was sufficiently interested in the subject to continue to read about it and, finally, to write about it. Yet except for a single three-word quotation from the History (cited by another historian) and a passing mention of his name, Macaulay and those five volumes are entirely missing from this book.

One can think of reasons for this lacuna: the assumption, perhaps, that modern scholarship has made Macaulay's History obsolete. Yet there are frequent quotations from Winston Churchill's book on his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill), who played an important part in the Revolution; on the same grounds, that book, published in the 1930s, could also be said to have been superseded. Or it may be the disrepute in which Macaulay is now held, his "Whig interpretation of history" having been so thoroughly anathematized.

Yet Macaulay was not as naively or relentlessly Whiggish as he is often made out to be. In his statement of "purpose," in the opening pages of the History, he explained that he would trace the great achievement of the Revolution, the "auspicious union of order and freedom" that had resulted in unprecedented liberty and prosperity, in America as well as England. But he also felt it his duty "faithfully to record disasters mingled with triumphs, and great national crimes and follies far more humiliating than any disaster." As if in anticipation of the later criticism of narrative history as being exclusively political, he announced that he would not treat merely "of battles and sieges, of the rise and fall of administrations, of intrigues in the palace, and of debates in parliament." Instead he would relate the history of the people as well as the history of the government: arts and literature, religion and manners, dress, furniture, amusements, and the like: "I shall cheerfully bear the reproach of having descended below the dignity of history, if I can succeed in placing before the English of the nineteenth century a true picture of the life of their ancestors."

This is, indeed, what he did in his famous third chapter, "The State of England in 1685," over a hundred pages devoted to just those subjects enamored by social historians--population, occupations, the material and cultural conditions of life (roads and lighting, books and newspapers, the arts and sciences) as well as the various classes (agricultural laborers, factory workers, artisans, and paupers) who make up "the common people."

Apart from being an important historical source for the events of the Revolution (properly qualified and revised in the light of later scholarship), Macaulay, like Locke, is part of the history of the Revolution itself, of the national heritage. If, as Barone reminds us, the English Revolution is with us still--if we, in America as in England, enjoy the fruits of that Revolution--it is at least in part because we have inherited it from Macaulay. His bequest, to be sure, comes to us in somewhat tainted form. The fallacy of the "Whig interpretation" is its determinism, the assumption that law and liberty, enlightenment and prosperity, are the necessary and inevitable end-products of history. Today that critique has assumed a postmodernist dimension; it is not only the determinism that is called into question but the values themselves, which are said to be Eurocentric or ethnocentric, racist, sexist, elitist, or otherwise spurious and suspect. To bring Macaulay back into the picture, together with the Revolution that he celebrated (and, for generations of readers, perpetuated) is to reaffirm those values as part of the English and, hence, American tradition.

These are, in fact, the values that Barone derives from the English Revolution. His is Whig history in the best sense, a nondeterministic history that is properly appreciative of all the accidents and contingencies, complexities and idiosyncrasies encountered along the way--an improbable history culminating in that improbable event called, with good reason, the Glorious Revolution.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author, most
recently, of The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling.