The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
September 21, 2007

The British used to celebrate the Glorious Revolution - now in Our First Revolution Michael Barone is claiming it as the inspiration for the United States. John Bew asks, is it not time for it to re-enter our collective national consciousness?

Posted by John Bew

Our First Revolution: The Remarkable Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers
by Michael Barone
New York: Crown Publishers, 2007
Hardback, £13.10

Narrative history is currently unfashionable among British historians. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in many ways, it is a sign that the practice of British history is in good health. It is partly a product of the increasing professionalisation of scholarship in our history faculties; but more so of the fact that big theories and overarching narratives rarely spend too much time in the ascendant before they are debunked. By and large, the Whig or the Marxist interpretations of our island story have had their day. The question is, what comes in their place?

Where we once had a set of contending British national narratives we now seem to have a gaping hole. In some cases, of course, overarching national narratives can be dangerous things, especially when they are more bound up with the prophetic than the historic. But in the British case, the wind down of Empire - and the embarrassment, guilt and humiliation that came with it - have coincided with a vacuum in national consciousness. It is, to take one example, much less common today than it once was to believe that the raison d'etre of the British nation is to play a progressive role on the global stage. Moral and political relativism now reigns supreme.

On the other side of the Atlantic, things are markedly different. Americans may not always agree on what their nation represents, past or present, but they certainly believe that it stands for something.

Take, for example, Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation: America and the World, 1600-1898,which appeared earlier this year. The book was an attempt to overturn a conventional wisdom, which held that the historical genesis of America emerged from a rejection of outside influences and that, consequently, the default position of the country was isolationism. From the time of the Founding Fathers, so the narrative ran, America was psychologically and politically predisposed to avoid messy foreign entanglements and the entrapments of Empire.

Kagan attempted to turn the debate on its head, by arguing that America had always been a "dangerous" nation since its creation, in the sense that it maintained an evangelical commitment to spreading liberty and democracy beyond its own shores. While the second volume of the study is yet to be published and the first book only reaches as far as the Spanish American War of 1898, the implicit political message is not difficult to decipher: however controversial, America's forays into the international arena since 9/11 do not represent a deviation from the country's normal path, but a reassertion of deeply ingrained historical values.

More intriguing to British readers, will be the recent offering of Michael Barone, senior writer for US News and World Report and a leading political columnist in the United States. At a time when the Special Relationship is often derided as undesirable, historically worthless and ideologically fragile, Barone's excellent book reminds us of the common ideological underpinnings which have bound both nations tightly together over centuries.

Our First Revolution is clearly written with an American audience in mind. However, the revolution to which Barone wants to draw his readers' attention is not the American Revolution of the 1770s, but the "English" Revolution which preceded. The "inspiration" for the Founding Fathers of America can be traced back to the sequence of events which saw the deposition of James II and the installation of William of Orange on the throne. As a formative moment in the genesis of representative democracy and parliamentary government, the book emphasises the importance of "the Glorious Revolution" - no longer a particularly fashionable phrase - as a foundation stone in the Anglo-American psyche.

In one sense, this is an inherently Macaulayite venture. Yet, Barone avoids the first temptation of the narrative form: teleology. Part accident/part design, what matters are not so much the intentions of the various contending parties but the outcome of events. As an "improbable revolution", the events of 1688-89 involved:

changes in English law, governance, and politics that turned out to be major advances for representative government.
Our First Revolution does not pretend to be a pioneering piece of historical research but that is not the point. Professional historians who cast their eye over the work will notice that a preponderance of quotes from established secondary authorities pepper the narrative. Yet, a further glance at the footnotes confirms that Barone has, reassuringly, identified the best historians of the period. In its emphasis on the Atlantic world of shared political ideas, the argument is particularly infused with the work of J. G. A. Pocock.

The book is highly readable and the narrative is interspersed with a crafty high political commentary on the foibles of King Charles and his younger brother James, whose Catholicism was of course one of the key sparks for the revolt; fitting for a commentator whose understanding of the intricacies of contemporary US politics is second none.

In fact, if a historian had written this book, it is highly unlikely that it would have been such a success. Barone has not made some obscure intellectual point; he has prompted thousands of Americans to think about the origins of their nation - not just what it stands for, but why. The book has spent time on best-seller lists and the author, a known conservative commentator, even made a successful appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, where the liberal anchorman and his audience were very open to argument. It is almost inconceivable that a book about "Our First Revolution" would ever make such an impact in the United Kingdom. Numerous television shows on celebrity genealogy are one thing; a genuinely national debate about the origins of our political beliefs and the British system of government, however, seems a long way off.

In its efforts to convince a popular American readership of the importance of 1688, therefore, this excellent book also serves as a rebuke, albeit an inadvertent one, to the level of historical consciousness in Britain today. Barone writes at the outset of the book:

The Glorious Revolution has long been recognized in Britain as a founding event that shaped the character ever since.
For a succession of brilliant historians and constitutional thinkers - Bolingbroke, Burke, Croker, Macaulay, and Dicey among others - this was certainly the case. But does the Glorious Revolution really mean anything in modern Britain any more?

The leading Cambridge University historian, Prof Eamon Duffy, has recently argued that one of the reasons why his pioneering work - which stresses the vitality of pre-Reformation English Catholicism - has had such a receptive audience in Britain is because of the way that the country has entered something of a post-Protestant phase. Perhaps, then, it is the inescapably confessional impulse behind the events of 1688 - primarily, fear of the installation of a Catholic King - which has discouraged popular engagement with the Glorious Revolution in modern, secular Britain.

Are we embarrassed? The only portion of the British Isles where the English Revolution is commemorated with any sort of regularity is in Northern Ireland, where the message is not necessarily in tune with the real legacy of the event. In Ireland, of course, what is sometimes also referred to as the "Bloodless Revolution" was nothing of the sort. And, for the Orange Order, the aspects of the seventeenth-century experience which are still relevant are the sense of siege, struggle and the primacy of Protestantism.

Protestant fanaticism played its part, of course, and historians would be foolish to argue otherwise. But what was really "Glorious" about the English Revolution was that it put in place a constitutional settlement which - again, part accident/part design - allowed for slow, organic growth across the centuries. It was Edmund Burke - a man known for his sympathy to the Catholic cause in Ireland - who made this point most eloquently in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Intolerance begat tolerance, albeit incrementally, as the need for the nation to overcome the wounds of the seventeenth century - civil war, revolution and endemic confessional and ideological strife - became paramount.

While France's Revolution of 1789 shook the foundations of Europe's ancien regime, Britain - not without a serious wobble - regained her footing and continued along a path of unbroken political development. In itself, this is not a ground breaking point but it is easy to forget that this is what makes this country unique in the modern world; even America succumbed to civil war, over the future of the nation and on what principles it should stand.

In this regard, the intellectual and discursive legacy of the English Revolution was much more important to the evolution of the British polity than is often allowed for. Although there was no agreed narrative of the events behind it, there soon emerged a shared understanding that the Revolutionary settlement was irrevocable. After 1688, different groups battled for ownership and interpretation of that settlement. Radicals said it catered for more popular power; conservatives said it augmented the establishment. Whigs used it to further their own agenda, while the Jacobites - the losers in 1688 - adopted the language of the Revolution even more vociferously than their opponents. British patriotism - formulated by writers such as Bolingbroke - was constructed around a constitutional ideal, rather than racial distinctiveness or a sense of destiny. In the formative years of the British nation, the English Revolution was the first port of all and the foundation for any political debate. Ultimately, however divergent their opinions were, everyone was playing by the same rules.

Is there a case for restoring a national narrative into modern British consciousness? In itself, the fragmentation of our history into class, gender, religion and region is not the problem. By shedding light on increasingly diverse areas of our experience, historians cannot be accused of undermining social cohesion. Nevertheless, this atomisation of the profession should not prevent historians - and indeed non-historians - from taking a step back and considering what, for want of a better phrase, might be called "the big picture": the wider political, constitutional and civic framework in which these competing histories took place.

With a society facing problems of internal integration, existential external threats and a government not sure whether to stand closer to Europe or the United States, it seems increasingly appropriate to rediscover what how and why we got to this point. As an antidote to such fears, Gordon Brown has sometimes drawn on the example of the United States, urging us to plant the flag in our front lawns or fly it from tall buildings. We do not need to force habits or borrow new practices from overseas. If we really listen to Americans, they will remind us that the answers are in our own past.

John Bew is a Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He is an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Unfortunately for those of us of the original Royalist, Catholic, Jacobite, Tory sympathies (as Peterhouse once was) 1688 was the victory of Parliament and Protestantism, of the relativism of the individual conscience and the defeat of political, religious and cultural authority, a liberal deluge from which we have never recovered. A far superior moment for the Tory consciousness to commemorate would be the sanctification of England by Latin Classical civilization when St. Gregory the Great sent his emissary, St. Augustine, to the emerging Anglo-Saxon state, and secured it for God, Classical civilization and culture. Protestantism is over and England had better return to its ancient roots if it wants to avoid sinking forever into the wine dark sea of multicultural, relativist, secular individualism.

Posted by: Andrew Thornton-Norris at September 22, 2007 11:13 AM

In the first comment Andrew Thornton-Norris writes:

Unfortunately for those of us of the original Royalist, Catholic, Jacobite, Tory sympathies … 1688 was the victory of Parliament and Protestantism

These days I more often find myself defending the Catholic Church against detractors such as the Monty Python team, who seem to “diss” everything Roman as a way of bolstering themselves in their delusion that they will not face judgement over their blasphemous “Life of Brian”. But I simply cannot let this comment go unchallenged. It is a classic case of “The Empire Fights Back”.

Taking first the emerging Anglo-Saxon state. Voltaire writes in his “Letters on England” of

The imbecile Ine, one of the tyrants of the Heptarchy in England, was the first who on a pilgrimage to Rome agreed to pay Peter's pence (about an ecu of our money) for each house in his territory.

Now Ine was, in other respects, quite an enlightened chap. He was the first to extend weregild to include the Celts, albeit at 60% the rate for a Saxon.

But let us move on to the Stuarts, who represent the “Empire Fighting Back” against Protestantism. Starting with Mary Queen of Scots, who enacted in real life her fantasy of a Catholic martyr, although in character she resembled rather a Hollywood celebrity, we move on to her son James Stuart, who said:

I, James, am neither a god nor an angel, but a man like any other. Therefore I act like a man and confess to loving those dear to me more than other men. You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George.

Whatever his orientation, so to invoke the name of Christ is blasphemy. And now we move on to his son Charles I. His “Divine Right of Kings” (in reality vox rei, vox Dei) received its deserved historical nemesis when, like a mighty gorilla, Oliver Cromwell taught him about the “Divine Right of Kongs”. (Not that I approve of his execution – I am glad that the great English mathematician was one of those Parliamentarians who opposed it).

Charles II, at least, had some good points. But his execrable brother Seamus a Caca started an execrable tradition in allowing himself to be used as a catspaw by the Frogs against England: they failed and left the unfortunate Irish to suffer the penalty.

I do not wish to dismiss the glories of the Latin tradition. But before Mr Thornton-Norris seeks to dismiss Protestantism, let him also consider the Latin disgraces, such as the money-spinning racket that was the way Canterbury used Becket’s remains, which where supposed to give off some sort of “holy radioactivity” (thank you, Janet Street-Porter, for that term). Let him read Haggai 2:10-14 and see how contra-spiritual that practice is.

But to end on a note of peace. Many of the strongest arguments for Christianity are ad hominem ones made by Christ's enemies, for example “Ecce homo” and “it is expedient that one man should die for the people”. But to point to a modern example, I have read Mr T-N’s page, and note that he refers to Bertrand Russell. The fact that that atheist/agnostic who thought himself God’s Gift to Women wrote ‘Why I am not a Christian’ is a strong argument indeed for the faith.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 25, 2007 07:13 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement