HISTORY: ENGLAND

A Glorious Beginning

William of Orange lands at Torbay and accepts the Declaration of Rights, passed by Parliament in 1688.
William of Orange lands at Torbay and accepts the Declaration of Rights, passed by Parliament in 1688. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

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Reviewed by H.W. Brands
Sunday, June 24, 2007

OUR FIRST REVOLUTION

The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers

By Michael Barone

Crown. 339 pp. $25.95

Voltaire dismissed the Holy Roman Empire as not holy, Roman or an empire. Historians have long given a similar back of the hand to England's Glorious Revolution of the 1680s. It was glorious, they asserted, mostly in avoiding mass bloodshed, and compared to later revolutions in France, Russia and China, it wasn't much of a revolution.

Michael Barone disagrees. The change in English government as a result of the events of 1688-89 was not simply astonishing on its own terms, he argues, but pregnant with consequences for the English-speaking world. Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, a longtime coauthor of the Almanac of American Politics and an occasional historian of recent American public life. In his current book he digs three centuries into the English past to unearth the roots of contemporary political practice on the Western side of the Atlantic -- the "Our" of his title refers to us Americans.

Some of the digging is not for the easily distracted. To motivate his main story, Barone traces the turbulent politics of mid-17th-century England, France and what became the Netherlands. It's a complicated era, just similar enough to our own to be misleading, and the careless reader risks getting overwhelmed. Thankfully, Barone entices us forward with such tidbits as that Tangerines were veterans of military service in Tangiers before they were little oranges, and that the difference between local time in London and Paris was once measured in days, 10 in the 1680s, because England refused to update its calendar.

Once Barone reaches his actual starting mark, the story snaps along. "A young Prince borne, which will cause disputes," he quotes a diarist of June 1688. The arrival of the heir was crucial, for the fate of England hung on the issue of issue -- namely whether Catholic king James II would be succeeded by a Catholic son or daughter. Religious wars had convulsed Europe for most of the century and a half since the start of the Protestant Reformation; in England the religious disputes had triggered a regicide, a civil war and several lesser eruptions of violence. Protestants insisted on observing the royal birth, suspecting that Queen Mary Beatrice wasn't really pregnant and that a surrogate would be smuggled under the bedclothes. Their attendance hardly settled the case. " 'Tis possible it may be her child," conceded James's estranged daughter Anne. "But where one believes it, a thousand do not."

The prospect of another Catholic king inspired a small group of Protestant worthies -- the Immortal Seven, their admirers called them -- to commit treason against James by inviting William of Orange, the husband of James's daughter Mary, to invade England and seize the throne. William responded by mounting the last successful invasion of England. John Churchill, James's military commander, deserted his patron and defected to William. "I am actuated by a higher principle," Churchill wrote in a letter he left for James: to wit, "the inviolable dictates of my conscience, and a necessary concern for religion." (Churchill neglected to explain why his conscience hadn't troubled him before William arrived.)

Thus William assumed the throne, ruling jointly with Mary. Yet he did so under constraints negotiated with the political brokers who invited him from the Netherlands. These restrictions constituted the "revolutionary"' aspect of what otherwise would have been a coup d'etat: In an age of absolutism elsewhere, the English monarch would defer to Parliament on key questions. A Bill of Rights ensured basic liberties to Englishmen, and the principle of self-government took what Barone rightly calls a "giant step forward."

Barone detects even larger consequences. The settlement of 1689, by marrying Dutch business sense to emerging English constitutionalism, laid the foundation for the 18th-century expansion of the British empire. An offshoot of that empire became the United States of America, whose founders wrapped themselves in the mantle of the Glorious Revolution. The 1689 settlement also fortified Britain to balance what Barone calls the "hegemonic power" of absolutist, then revolutionary, and finally Napoleonic France.

The hegemonic label is important to Barone, in that he traces the effects of the Glorious Revolution into the 20th century and beyond. The United States, he argues, was the continuing heir of the 1689 settlement, its growing strength undergirded by the same elements of law and commerce that had built the British empire. Americans eventually adopted the anti-hegemonic philosophy pursued by William and his English successors. Barone takes pleasure in noting the historical symmetry in the anti-hegemonic -- that is, anti-German -- alliance of the United States and Britain during World War II, the former led by the Dutchman Franklin Roosevelt, the latter by John Churchill's descendant Winston.

He might have noted something else. Barone asks what the world would have been like had the United States not acquired the habit of opposing "tyrannical hegemonic powers," and he proceeds to list among the bad guys Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Stalin and "the terrorists of Osama bin Laden and the mullahs of Iran." Leaving aside that Osama and the mullahs are hardly in the same geopolitical league as Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin, Barone might have mentioned how long it took the United States to reach the stage of peaceful self-government, and how many people died -- in the American Civil War, most conspicuously -- getting there. At a time when the present administration remains committed to establishing democracy in Iraq, the most important lesson of American political history may be that democracy doesn't come easily. William of Orange and John Churchill spared England a war in the 1680s; America in the 1860s wasn't so lucky, and neither is Iraq now. ยท

H.W. Brands is the author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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