A Whiggish Defense of the Glorious Revolution

The Stuart monarchy posed an existential threat to English liberty during the second half of the seventeenth century. In 1688, the quintessentially English fear of absolutism, frenzied by Stuart haughtiness, overcame the equally potent specter of Cromwellian anarchy. The Glorious Revolution ensued. The disappearance of the Tory consensus that had taken root during the early 1680s stands as a testament to James II’s royal ineptitude. For Charles II had upon his death in 1685 vanquished the obstacles to reestablishing his father’s vision of a strong monarchy and a deferential Parliament. Yet James’s attempt to modernize England along the lines of Louis XIV’s Gallic Catholicism met fatally with the tradition of English liberalism that had culminated in the work of John Locke. The death knell of the Stuart’s perennial aspiration toward absolutism thus found expression in the accession of England’s last Catholic king. Modern, parliamentary democracy would reap the benefits.

Charles II’s reign saw the triumph of Toryism and its ideological corollary, High Anglicanism. The Levellers’ 1649 Agreement of the free people of England, with its call for universal manhood suffrage, acts a barometer of the period leading up to Charles’s return from France. Cromwell’s politicization of the yeoman farmers that constituted his New Model Army unleashed a spirit of religious and social innovation, one that would perpetuate the chaos and confusion that followed in the wake of Charles I’s execution. General Monck’s[1] decision to reinstall the deposed Stuarts in 1660 expressed a deep yearning for order, one that emerged in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. A desire to prevent at all costs a reversion to the anarchy of the 1650s pervaded the Restoration settlement. Popular sentiment stood behind the Crown, as large crowds accompanied Charles during the triumphal procession through London that followed his coronation.  The Parliament that took office in 1662 consisted by and large of Royalists who had sided with Charles I during the Civil War. Sitting until the Exclusion Crisis of 1679, the Restoration Parliament imposed upon England a heavily Anglican agenda. Monod suggests that as many as 2,000 ministers lost their offices due to their infidelity to the 1662 Act of Uniformity.

What opposition did arise to England’s deferential drift toward Royalism did not survive the tumultuous events of James II’s accession. Indeed, Charles had alienated his Tory supporters with the 1672 Declaration of Indulgence, an attempt to suspend the legal restrictions on Protestant Dissent. Parliament responded with the Test Act of 1673, which disqualified Roman Catholics and non-Anglicans from holding political or military office. Yet the Whigs’ virulent resistance to James II’s succession between 1679 and 1681 convinced many parliamentarians that England sat on the brink of a return to the abyss of Cromwell’s Protectorate. Whig behaviour[2] during the Exclusion Crisis and the subsequent discovery of the Rye House Plot, which (unlike the Popish Plot fabricated by Titus Oates) represented a legitimate attempt on the lives of Charles and James, led to the suppression of the Whig Party. Its leader, the Earl of Shaftesbury, would flee to the Netherlands with his secretary John Locke. Lest Englishmen waver in their support for the stability that Charles II had bequeathed to his brother, the Duke of Monmouth’s 1685 rebellion, accompanied as it was by the Duke of Argyll’s sedition in Scotland, ensured that James II would assume power with a firm grip on the hearts and minds of his subjects.

That he failed to maintain this position testifies to the sea change which had transpired in English political culture and to his own failings as a ruler of men. Craven as they were, Englishmen had not taken leave of their rational instincts. In his article “Coffee Politicians Does Create,” Steven Pincus examines the culture of debate and discussion that predominated in England’s coffeehouses during the late 1600s, arguing forcefully that it amounted to nothing less than the emergence of a “public sphere” of political influence that transcended Court and Parliament. Even Charles II had availed himself of the new print culture, enlisting Robert L’Estrange in a propaganda war in favor of the Tory’s deferential conception of royal power. Some evidence that opinions on foreign policy formed independently of the Stuarts’ official antagonism toward the Dutch Republic is found in John Evelyn’s diary entries of 1683-1684, which profess greater hostility towards Louis XIV’s pursuit of “universal monarchy” than the economic rivalry of Holland. Echoing Evelyn was An Anti-French Tract, a pamphlet published in the Dutch Republic and subsequently distributed by James’s opponents throughout 1686. These documents encapsulate the growing sense that economic competition between two capitalist powerhouses such as England and Holland needn’t be pernicious to either contestant.  Readers must bear in mind the surfeit of Huguenot refugees who had made a home for themselves in England upon Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edit of Nantes (1685); such a unilateral abrogation of religious toleration convinced the Whigs that parliamentary supremacy and civil liberty offered the only sure basis for religious toleration.[3]

James’s naked attempt to fashion a modernized, Catholic monarchy similar to that of Bourbon France proved excessively odious to English sensibilities, conforming as they did to this embryonic form of civil society. Steve Pincus’s “The Practice of Catholic Modernity” sets forth systematically the different manifestations of James’s sustained pursuit of absolutism. He began by establishing a permanent, standing army, threatening to revoke the charters of inns and public houses that refused to quarter his soldiers throughout the kingdom. He sought to restrict England’s nascent “public sphere” via the surveillance of private correspondence. Working hand in hand with the diarist and naval secretary Samuel Pepys, James modernized his fleet, taking Louis XIV’s state as an explicit model. Yet it was his religious meddling that would drive the final nail into his regal coffin. By promoting Catholics to a disproportionate amount of religious, civil, and military offices, James bound the fortunes of his coreligionists irrevocably to his own.[4] Would that he had stopped there. His Ecclesiastical Committee undertook the reCatholicization of England’s universities, installing college presidents who would sanction the overt practice of Mass at Oxford and Cambridge. It was James’s prosecution of the Seven Bishops, who had refused to read his second Declaration of Indulgence from their pulpits, that ultimately undermined the Tory support upon which his reign depended. Though they had previously articulated their doctrine of passive resistance, Tory politicians and clergymen were not willing to brook the disassembling of their beloved Church.

As provincial as these events may seem in 21st century hindsight, it was this environment that gave birth to modern liberalism and established Parliament as the supreme branch of English government. Writing in exile, Locke had composed his Two Treatises of Government as a justification for James’s ouster. Arguing that civil society amounted to a contract amongst freely-consenting individuals, Locke declared valid the people’s right to cashier their governors if they began to threaten life, liberty, or property. The divine right of monarchs was further curtailed with the coronation of William III and Mary II, an event that witnessed the simultaneous recitation of England’s Bill of Rights before both Houses of Parliament. Such privileges included, inter alia, Parliament’s sole right to levy taxes and erect a standing army. The Bank of England, chartered by William’s Whig ministers in 1694, ensured that these principles would hold true in fact. As the Bank’s securities were underwritten by Parliament, ministers commanding parliamentary majorities would assume control of the annual budget by the early 18th century.  In essence, the Glorious Revolution had codified in a more decisive fashion the principles for which Parliament had gone to war with Charles I in 1642. In so doing, it laid the infrastructure of the modern nation-state. Thus the significance of the events leading up to and succeeding the Stuart’s fall cannot be overstated.[5]


[1] In one of History’s great ironies, Cromwell’s Protectorate would be brought to an end by a military officer whose name mimics phonetically the word “monk.”

[2] An English rendering of the American “behavior,” which is not favo(u)red by this author.

[3] Revisionists who seek to portray the Glorious Revolution as a reactionary outpouring of religious bigotry will assuredly overlook this nuance. cf. Margaret Jacob, The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents (pp. 1-22).

[4] We see this strategy playing out in a slightly altered form in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has posed as the defender of minority Alawites. cf. also Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and Mack Brown’s relationship with UT boosters.

[5] N.B. This author is half-English. 

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