In the raging debate about the meaning and significance of the Iraqi election on Sunday, no one has noticed a strange fact. This election, which many hope will spark a democratic revolution for the Middle East, falls on the same day–January 30–as the event which set in motion the modern West’s first democratic revolution more than 365 years ago. It was on that day in 1649 that King Charles I of England was beheaded after his formal trial for treason and tyranny, an epoch-shattering event that destroyed the notion of divine right of kings forever, and gave birth to the principle that reverberates down to today, from President Bush’s inaugural address last week to the Iraqi election this Sunday: that all political authority requires the consent of the people. Although few like to admit it now, it was Charles’s execution, along with the civil war that preceded it and the political turmoil that followed, that established our modern notions of democracy, liberty, and freedom of speech. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the tree of liberty must sometimes be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” he was thinking primarily of the legacy of the English civil war.
Charles I’s trial and execution followed years of violence which dwarf anything happening in Iraq today. Still, the parallels between Iraq in 2005 and England in 1649 are striking. While Charles I was no Saddam Hussein, he had jailed and even tortured his opponents to exact obedience to his autocracy, and had used his army to wage war on his own subjects. It took six years of bloody fighting across England, Scotland, and Ireland to finally topple him and his regime, in a civil war costing thousands of lives–more in a proportional sense, than died in the First World War.
This was also a conflict shaped by religious rivalries, with Catholics and Anglicans, the equivalent of Iraq’s Sunnis, fighting against Presbyterians and other radical Protestant sects who, like Iraq’s Shias, had lived for decades under the heel of their oppressors. And like Iraq, the war invoked fierce ethnic hatreds, pitting Englishmen against both Irish and Scots and leading to atrocities on all sides. Nor was there a United States to step in to shape events or to guarantee security against hostile neighbors, like Spain and France, who tried to prop up Charles’s cause and prevent the democratic revolution unfolding in England from reaching their shores.
Yet in spite of the chaos and instability, the defeat of the English monarchy shattered once and for all the idea that had governed Western political institutions since the Middle Ages, that a king’s authority was divine and beyond question. When Charles I went to the execution block on January 30, a brave new world was born, that of sovereignty of the people. The declaration of a self-governing English commonwealth took place the following March, while debates and discussion had already taken place across England about whether popular sovereignty literally meant one man one vote or required a property qualification; or meant the abolition of property as radical groups like the Levelers argued; or even whether women should have a role.
Few of the participants in these debates, and in the pamphlet explosion which the king’s death set off, were intellectuals like John Milton or Thomas Hobbes. Most were soldiers, ministers, farmers, and ordinary working men-the equivalent of the bloggers in today’s post-Saddam Iraq. Yet the ideas they forged in the flames of revolution would inspire the writings of John Locke and later the Founding Fathers.
They included the idea that human beings have a “natural right” to liberty; that a free commonwealth requires a free and open public square for debate and deliberation, a affirmation of free speech which John Milton passionately defended in his Aeropagitica; and that politics is about human needs and issues, not divine dictates and ordinances. Although participants on both sides freely quoted the Bible to support their positions, they also recognized that if freedom was to reign, political authority must be detached from religious authority. This was the original formulation of our doctrine of the separation of Church and State: 366 years ago, Englishmen had come to realize that the mullah must yield to the magistrate, and that both must ultimately yield to the people.
Not bad for a decade of chaos and turmoil. And although the throne was restored eleven years later in 1660, it was for a king who admitted the principle of parliamentary consent. England had become Europe’s first true constitutional monarchy. Will anything as important and influential come out of Sunday’s election in Iraq? Hard to say. But just as Milton and Algernon Sidney and John Locke, and later Jefferson and Adams, translated the ideas of the English civil war, along with those of the Greeks and Romans, into the idiom of modern democracy and freedom, so this generation of Iraqi democrats may do the same for Islamic political thought in the Middle East. No one should underestimate the revolutionary power of the ballot box-or the executioner’s axe.
–Arthur Herman is the author of To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, published by Harper Collins.