The Crises of the Stuart Century: Wrap Up

If you need to catch up, my posts about the Crises of the Stuart Century were:

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

So why am I going on about the various political conflicts during the seventeenth century? Well a number of reasons, and it might be useful to go through them, so you understand what I'm about, as well as how what I'm about influences my work.

  1. It's interesting. Now, this is largely subjective. Usually, when people talk about why they don't like history, they mention "memorizing dates". People learn sports stats, the details of who wrote a favorite song and under what circumstances, or how to roast a goose. To think productively about something, you have to know something about it. Yes, I know this is probably an unpopular and even problematic attitude nowadays. Nevertheless, it remains true.I happen to enjoy learning about the actions and misbehaviors of influential or interesting people of the past, and the characters of 17th century England were certainly interesting. To celebrate, I just put on Edward German's "Nell Gwyn Overture", a cute piece of incidental music from 1900. Let not poor Nelly starve--if she could have gotten royalties from her future fame, Charles would not have had to make this plea to his brother James on his deathbed.

  2. It tells us a lot about the origins of our political system. Yeah, I know. That sounds a bit too wholesome and improving. Still, it really is fascinating to try to inhabit the mental world of people who don't know that someday there will be filibusters and primaries. Now, yes, a narrative of steady progress toward freedom is not tenable. But still, it is startling how every attempt to reassert Royal prerogative was successfully opposed, sometimes with violence, sometimes with Parliamentary maneuverings. People recognized rights, and defended them. Reading their arguments, seeing their positions, and understanding their ambitions, shows us what is functional in a political system, and what isn't.

  3. It reflects our own time, sometimes in disturbing ways. This is what struck me the most as I read the book. The Stuart century starts with a fairly ordinary royal administration under James I. Then it falls apart into brutal civil war and ends in a military dictatorship. The large-scale collapse of civil government, leading the widespread violence and death, in a country not threatened from outside, is quite disturbing, though it did come in the middle of a century that seemed devoted to senseless ideologically and theologically driven violence. In England ideology and interest overwhelmed a sense of common nationhood. And, after all that, no one had a working government model to replace the one that had been destroyed. A military dictatorship ensued, but only because they had a supernaturally skilled military and political leader, Oliver Cromwell, to be military dictator. And he never came up with a system that would go of itself. Once he died, they had no choice but to return to the royal system they had so violently destroyed.

But once you've killed a King, and run things pretty successfully without one for awhile, can a King ever feel completely secure? The body politic under Charles II was disordered, violent, moody, and more than a little deranged. And their King and his brother, the heir, were both in the pay of the King of France. Patriotism doesn't pay the bills after all. So vast conspiracy theories convulsed the nation, leading to riots and executions. Our petty Vince Fosters and Seth Riches have nothing on Edmund Berry Godfrey lying in a ditch on Primrose hill, impaled on his own sword, or the attempted assassination of both the King and his successor.

When the next crisis came, a major part of the ruling clique invited a foreigner to come in and replace their legal monarch, and then just brazened it out: "I really don't get what you're going on about". We call this coup the Glorious Revolution, and, in fact, its somewhat low origins do not prevent this new period from being the fount of much of our thinking on the legitimacy of democratic government.

Then, safe at last, everyone, or at least everyone with the leisure to indulge themselves, sank into childish and vicious party rivalries over issues of little ultimate significance. That's the happy ending!

The Hobbes metric

Thomas Hobbes lived from 1588 (when his mother was supposedly frightened into labor by news of the approach of the Armada) to 1679. Someone similarly long lived born in 1625, the year Charles I became King, would have lived to 1716, two years into the reign of George I, the first Hanoverian monarch. King Charles would have been executed when they were 24, Cromwell become Lord Protector when they were 28, Charles II King when they were 36, and the Glorious Revolution when they were 63. Someone who lived in interesting times.

Do you think you'll see anything like that amount of political change over your life?

For all its flaws, our system has been remarkably stable. What are the chances that that will continue?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 4, Whigs vs Tories

This is the fourth in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Is this choice really so hard?

Is this choice really so hard?

OK, so this one is not so much of a crisis as the previous ones. It didn't lead to a bloody civil war, it didn't result in show trials, it didn't cause the existing power structure to switch out their chief executive for the ruler of a sometimes-hostile foreign power. The savagery of the conflict between the nascent political parties, starting under Charles II and reaching maturity as a recognizable party system under Anne, indicates a more functional political system, where the savagery become more rhetorical. While there would be riots and civil broils aplenty over the coming centuries, including invasions by the "OMG, would you jerks go away already?" Stuarts, there would not again be a serious internal threat to the system. Still, it was savage, and in a way that looks uncomfortably familiar.

So let's go back to the reign of Charles II.

Exclusion, and the birth of the Whigs

In the late 1670s, the paranoia of the Popish Plot united with the Exclusion Crisis, that is, the desire to keep Charles's Catholic younger brother James from taking the throne on Charles's death. Charles had no legitimate children, and while his Protestant oldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth, was popular, there was never any serious possibility of the succession going to him—he did try to invade on James's accession, and was quickly defeated.

A series of Test Acts banned Catholics from serving in various offices. And in 1679, at the height of the Plot, elections returned a highly anti-James Parliament, which promptly proposed an Exclusion Bill. Charles dissoved this Parliament, and there was a frenzied second election. It is now that something like an organized political party, soon to be called the Whigs, emerged. The Whigs met in London coffee houses and at the Green Ribbon Club. They orchestrated what Kishlansky calls "a lurid press keep up interest in the Popish Plot long enough to influence the October elections", and won a strong majority in favor of Exclusion.

Charles had the power to prorogue Parliament, and used it—seven times over the next year. It worked. The derangement of the Popish Plot receded somewhat. And the King's supporters imitated the Whig political organization, and thus the Tories were born.

When Parliament finally met in late 1680, the Tories had some power too. According the Kishlansky, "the governing class was now irredeemably divided". Tory propagandists associated Whigs with the revolutionaries who had killed Charles's father. Over the next five years, Charles regained a lot of his power. He purged the judiciary of anyone not loyal to him, and these judges then made possible "capital convictions for sedition and ruinous judgments for slander" against the King's opponents. Then the Rye House Plot (1683) gave Charles cover for arresting and purging his opponents.

The maturing of party politics under Anne

By the early eighteenth century, under Queen Anne, the party system had reached maturity:

...Whigs and Tories were no longer opprobrious labels (after Scottish and Irish brigands, respectively): they were organizations whose opposition dominated the political life of the nation...local officials were purged and repurged...electoral contests for borough offices gradually replaced rotational systems, and party affiliation infected every aspect of social life from patronage to friendship and distorted every market from commodities to conflict politicized England....the parties were divided over matters of outlook, principle and instinct. There was remarkably little overlap.

This blend of policy debate, red-faced rage, and team sport is incredibly familiar. For late Stuart England, party politics was like a new disease, against which the people had no antibodies. And like such a disease, it ran through the population, and then became endemic, flaring up periodically, like the Plague.

Flare ups are still inevitable. The idea the people will settle down to push forward consistent policy agendas without conspiracy theories, claims that their opponents are secretly aliens or perverts, or attempts to politicize mundane daily activities like eating dinner and going to musicals, has always been a pipe dream of people who (like me) seem to lack the gene for team spirit.

This party system survived the end of the Stuarts and the advent of the Hanoverians. Given the civil conflict and outbreaks of violence it replaced, it's hard to wish it had not appeared. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they believed they had created a system immune to such shenanigans. They were so wrong so fast, you have to wonder why we think they were so smart.

Are you a team player?

It doesn't really matter which team you support, as long as you support it fervently.

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 3, The Glorious Revolution

This is a continuation of my series on the Stuart century, responding to A Monarchy Transformed by Mark Kishlansky

Best rebranding of a high-level takeover  ever

Best rebranding of a high-level takeover ever

After Charles II died, in 1685, his Catholic brother took the throne as James II. Charles had had numerous children by various mistresses, but his own wife, Catherine of Braganza, had proved incapable of carrying a pregnancy to term. Charles had himself promised his paymaster, Louis XIV, that he would convert to Catholicism at some point, but there is no sign he ever did so. James, on the other hand, was an ardent Catholic. This irritated Charles, who knew better than to take religion too seriously, and he insisted that James raise his two daughters, Mary and Anne, as Protestants, and it is as Protestants that each would become Queen.

But it isn't just that James II was a Catholic, though that aroused the most passionate popular opposition. He was also an absolutist, who wanted to recentralize power and push back against Parliament.

A slight detour to New England

Here in New England, where I live, this led to the creation of the Dominion of New England, on the model of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (when an English King copies the administrative structures of Spain, you know you've got trouble), unifying the Mid-Atlantic and New England colonies under the notorious Governor Edmund Andros.

For years there was a diner on Trapelo Rd. in Belmont, MA, called the Andros Diner. I presume it was named after the Cycladic island by its Greek proprietors, not the Governor, but it always seemed a bit tone deaf. I'm pretty sure children are no longer taught to execrate the tyrannical Andros (my children certainly seem pretty indifferent), but this attempt to revoke the colonial charters and centralize the administration of the colonies was part of the long history that led to the Revolution.

But Kishlansky, despite teaching at Harvard, spent no time at all on New England in his book. But what Andros, at James's orders, attempted in New England, James tried himself in old England. Stuarts could never stand alternative centers of power, but were never effectual in manipulating and co-opting them. Instead, they just tried to squash them, which led to one execution and one deposition among the six Stuart monarchs, along with a lot of political chaos for the rest, not a sterling record.

None dare call it treason

Angry at James, and worried that he would have a male heir with his second wife, the Catholic Mary of Modena, a substantial group of wealthy and powerful men, already being called Whigs (we'll see a lot more of them when I get to the reign of Anne), conspired to replace him with a foreign but Protestant monarch, William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands, with which England had fought three wars between 1654 and 1672. It definitely helped that he was married to James's Protestant daughter Mary, and that she would become Queen.

One reason the politics of ancient Greek city states were so volatile was that the wealthy of a city felt more connected to the wealthy of another than they did with the politically violent rabble in their own home town. And while the Greek poleis all shared a common culture, language, and contempt for all those losers in the world who who would never have the right to compete in the Olympic games, going to other cities to get help in internal political conflicts didn't seem like that big a deal, and it happened fairly frequently. For example, before Athens was a democracy, Sparta intervened to help depose the tyrant Hippias and (unsuccessfully) try to install someone they liked better. Later Persian intervention in the Peloponnesian War and in other conflicts always made those conflicts both worse and longer-lived. But internal conflict among the Greeks suited the Persians just fine. They couldn't defeat the Greeks militarily, but fortunately volatile and fratricidal Greek politics gave them a cheap way to keep the Greeks busy, at least until Alexander showed up.

Getting back to England, prior to the nobles who conspired to bring William over, a similar group of English nobles had conspired with the Scots against James's father, Charles I in the 1630s. In The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas wrote “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates," quoted, I see, in Die Harder. The apposite quote is from the Elizabethan writer John Harington:

Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

In both cases, the wealthy and powerful conspired against their own government with a foreign power, because they felt that this was made necessary by powerful forces within their own country that were taking it to its doom. And both times, they succeeded. Arguably, the result of their actions is the democratic form of government we now enjoy and whose fragility we fret over.

"The culmination of decades of manipulation of English public opinion"

In late 1688 William issued a declaration that his invasion was necessary to "preserve and maintain the established laws, liberties, and customs" of England. According to Kishlansky "the declaration was a masterpiece of propaganda, the culmination of decades of Dutch manipulation of English public opinion".

Still, landing with Dutch troops in Torbay was a daring move for William, and if James had used his larger army effectively, he could well have crushed the invasion force. But several of his key commanders went over to the invader, and James eventually fled, to create an alternate court that political romantics could daydream about for nearly a century to come.

This crisis and its resonance

No one ever seemed to find the behavior of the oppositions of Charles I and James II treasonous or even outrageous. A large number of people were willing to put up with even the military intervention of a foreign power if it supported the right side. Of course, nationalism wasn't anything like the powerful organizing force it became in the nineteenth century.

I won't spend a lot of time belaboring the modern parallels, but it's worth thinking about.

Whose intervention would you accept if it enabled you to defeat the people you know are going to destroy your country?

And after you succeeded, would you be proud of this, or would you let it gently evaporate from the pages of the official history textbooks?