There could hardly be a better person to write a book on the British roots of American constitutional thought and political culture than Michael Barone, and now, fortunately, he has. This book, Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers, (whose title recalls Barone's first book) is many things. It is an excellent primer on the British political culture of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries for the American general reader. It is a entertaining glimpse of the era and the personalities, from John Churchill (Winston's ancestor) to Isaac Newton, that created the "Anglosphere toolkit" -- the set of political, military, financial, and commercial institutions that taken together made the modern world possible. The fact that the English-speaking nations found this toolkit to be a natural extension of their own pre-existing exceptional characteristics assured that first Britain and then America would be able to use this toolkit to assume and maintain world leadership unbroken from then to now.
But as enjoyable as these aspects are, other people could, and in fact have written about them. What makes the book unique, and uniquely valuable, is watching Barone tease out the very roots of the partisan electoral politics at which he is master. For it was in the run-up to the Revolution of 1688 (traditionally, the "Glorious" Revolution, unless you are an Irish Catholic) that the electoral pattern to which Americans and Britons (and Canadians and Australians, and now many others) have become acustomed, first emerged. As Barone put it, that was the point in history when Parliament became an institution, expected to meet continuously, rather than an event called for a specific time and for a specific purpose.
As the King's party, which became known as the Tories, and the constitutionalist opposition, which became known as the Whigs, became coherent national entities, they learned to fight elections, both Parliamentary and local, as part of a concerted national campaign, contested by networks of local activists using a coherent nationwide strategy, message, and communications channels. In the two decades prior to 1688, virtually every phenomenon of modern electoral politics could be discerned, at least in embryo. Even modern bloggers were presaged by the network of pamphleteers on both sides, mostly vicious, libellous, and highly partisan rumor-mongers. Sound familiar? Even sock-puppetry was not unknown.
Barone, whose political reportage in the US is unmatched, covers the Parliamentary elections in the run-up to 1688 almost as a contemporary election, and very effectively. You can almost imagine yourself in one of the partisan coffeehouses in London that served as informal political headquarters, waiting for the election results to come in from the countryside -- not exactly instant results, but quicker than the resolution of the 2000 Presidential election! What is interesting is how, once partisan electioneering become the standard, the system's dynamics were so similar to contemporary elections, despite the great differences in society from then to now. Of course the franchise was limited to the minority of males who met the property qualifications, but the system still functioned, within these limits, in a recognizable manner.
Looking at the patchwork of qualifications in the different constituencies that elected members of Parliament, one is reminded of the current American presidential primary systems -- each state different, some with a broad franchise, where any voter can participate; others more limited, where only previously-registered party members can vote; still others, the "caucus" states, where only party activists can participate. Yet lack of uniformity is just accepted and worked with, as the first parties in the seventeenth century worked within their own limitations and irregularities.
The one area in which I would have liked to have seen a deeper discussion was the issue of the larger context of Catholic-Protestant rivalry throughout Europe. Although Barone is right about the extent of the Counter-Reformation's successes by the time of the Stuart succession crisis, and the resultant siege mentality this produced in Britain and the Netherlands, in fact the religious wars were over at that point. The Catholic Church had essentially reconsolidated itself within the limes of the Western Roman Empire, and although it was always hopeful of further progress against Protestantism, it was not actively pushing it. The Vatican, in fact, was primarily concerned with preventing France from gaining hegemony within the Catholic world and thus establishing the dominance of civil power over churchly affairs -- from what we now know, they were very justified in doing so. Thus the Vatican saw James II as a French pawn and preferred his defeat -- which is why the Pope ordered a Te Deum sung when King Billy prevailed at the Boyne -- a fact not always well-known in contemporary Northern Ireland.
The Protestants in England and Scotland were viewing the situation through the lens of 1588, and so were really boxing with historical ghosts. It was not that there wasn't a real danger of extinction of Parliamentary government -- but that danger stemmed from the new post-Renaissance centralist ideology of "benevolent" despotism. Ironically, Phillip II of Spain, the master of the Armada, had actually been reasonably observant of English constitutionalism when he had been in England as consort to Mary -- far more so than a Stuart raised in a Bourbon court might have eventually been. The conflict of 1588 was a religious struggle waged on a constitutional pretext -- the legitimacy of Elizabeth's succession to the throne. The conflict of 1688 was a constitutional struggle with a religious pretext -- James's Catholicism. This is the difference a hundred years made.
This boxing with historical ghosts seems to be a generic Anglosphere bug. The American revolutionaries were similarly attributing to George III the ambitions of James II, which was just absurd, although the Quebec Act seemed on the surface like a parallel to James's use of the Irish to buttress his power vis-a-vis Parliament. Ironically the English constitutionalist objection to the American assertions of autonomy for their legislatures recalled James's triangulation of the English, Scottish, and Irish parliaments to reclaim power for himself. Both sides in the American war of independence were thus claiming the Revolution's mantle.
For the American reader, the big payoff is at the end, where Barone makes it clear how much the events of 1688 overhung the events of 1776 and 1789. Imagine if you will that the states of the American South attempted to secede from the Union tomorrow. No matter what the causes, it would be impossible for the legacy of 1861-65 not to overhang our perception of such an event and color our views of it. Now consider that the American Civil War happpened almost a century and a half ago. Then recall that in 1776, the Glorious Revolution was a mere 88 years in the past. A long-lived man or woman in that year could have related firsthand childhood memories of the events. Perhaps some Minutemen in Boston were able to hear an ancient relate, firsthand, the memories of the Boston crowd confronting James II's appointee, Edmund Andros, as Hawthorne later imagined it. Certainly most adults had heard their parents' or grandparents' accounts of the Glorious Revolution and its events in America, and it was that Revolution that was taken as the model for our own; its battle-cries and slogans borrowed, its Bill of Rights evoked and later imitated.
Barone's book comes as a welcome addition, in this four-hundredth anniversary of the Anglosphere's planting in America, and the three-hundredth anniversary of the first of the four great Unions of the Anglosphere, of the new and growing realization of the essential continuity and identity of the Anglosphere's culture and politics.Posted by James C. Bennett at July 11, 2007 04:00 PM