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.
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.
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.