Michael Barone, a senior editor at US News and World Report, has written a gem of a history in his newest book Our First Revolution. While the American Revolution is largely hailed as the first significant experiment in representative democracy, Barone argues persuasively that England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, in which William of Orange (Netherlands) invaded England and took the throne from James II, formed the backdrop and political example for the American revolution.
Barone’s historical explication is both detailed and extensive. He effectively sets the Glorious Revolution within its political and religious contexts, briefly but thoroughly examining the reign of Charles II, James II’s brother who had tenuously but successfully navigated the turbulent religious waters of his day. While Charles demonstrated some political savvy, James demonstrated none. At the height of concerns about Catholicism in England, James converted to Catholicism, precipitating a crisis in the government as Parliament moved to exclude James from the throne. While Charles ceded to their demand, temporarily banishing his brother, he also prorogued Parliament for an extended period of time, effectively moving England toward the “absolute monarch” model of Louis XIV in France. When Charles died, James took the throne to no little dissent–the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate child of Charles, was the more popular figure as he was both a successful general and a Protestant.
James’ rule would be marked by efforts to consolidate power in the monarchy, thereby ensuring that his Catholic heirs would remain on the throne, and by his efforts to bring tolerance for Catholics to England. When Parliament was resistant to his efforts, he worked to rig the elections to create a Parliament that was more friendly to his work. When compared with the persecution of Protestants by the Catholic Louis XIV in France, James’ efforts to instill Catholicism in England made him unpopular.
England would be saved from James’ efforts by William of Orange, James’ cousin who wanted to procure England’s help against Louis XIV and France. William was also interested, of course, in procuring the British crown for himself, which led to his invasion of England in 1688, an invasion that was mostly bloodless and which resulted in the promotion of representative democracy. William, the master propogandist, had released a pamphlet in England prior to his arrival claiming that he would ensure unimpaired elections to Parliament. He never broke his promise.
When James fled England, England faced a governmental crisis. Louis XIV was growing in power across the channel and threatening the Netherlands, but England had no government to speak of. William called elections and asked Parliament to convene–during their convention, they named William king, created a Bill of Rights, limited the King’s power, and declared war on France. Barone argues effectively that these changes to England’s monarchy were both effective and were imitated roughly 100 years later by the American revolutionaries. In the words of Barone, “Americans were thus not rebelling against the Revolutionary settlement. They were seeking to preserve in their own states what they believed the Revolution of 1688-89 had established.”
< Our First Revolution is even-handed, careful and extremely readable. There is always a danger in history to either over-simplify the diverse strands of action and thought, or to get lost amidst the numerous details. Barone manages to do neither, instead writing with a narrative that is both informative and enjoyable.