Conservatives Should Not Celebrate Religious Tyranny and Coercion

Detail of portrait of King James II, c. 1650-1675 (via Wikimedia)
England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 wasn’t so glorious.

Editor’s Note: For the other side of NRO’s debate on the Glorious Revolution, click here.

Ask a decently well-read conservative or classical liberal to put a starting date on modern government (meaning by “modern” something like free and fair, liberal and democratic, decent and respectable) and nine times out of ten he’ll tell you 1688.

It was in the summer of that year that the Dutch prince William of Orange invaded England and took the throne from his uncle and father-in-law, King James II. Under William (to the extent that anything can be said to have been “under William”), Parliament claimed a near monopoly on governing authority and adopted the Bill of Rights 1689, establishing the system of effective non-monarchy that perdures in Britain to the present day — and, the revolution’s defenders say, laying the groundwork for all limited, democratic governments to follow, including that of the United States.

For three and a half centuries, this incident has been remembered as the Glorious Revolution (leaving little doubt as to the attitude we’re meant to take toward it) and King James has been vilified as a tyrant. This so-called Glorious Revolution has become a central episode of our philosophical founding myth — the victory of free, fair republican government over the arbitrary despotism of an absolute monarch. That myth is long overdue for a reevaluation.

Though the roots of the revolution may be traced back as far as the reign of James’s father, Charles I (both Charles and his reign met an early end at the bloody hands of Cromwell in 1649), if not all the way to the apostasy of Henry VIII in the century prior, it is best to begin with a more immediate point of origin: the Corporation and Test Acts.

These laws, enacted by Parliament between 1661 and 1678, aimed to restrict access to public offices solely to members of the Church of England. The most substantial, “An Act for preventing Dangers which may happen from Popish Recusants” (1673), required anyone taking office to receive Communion in the Church of England and swear an oath denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, effectively barring Catholics and Nonconformists. It was passed over the objections, and despite the best efforts, of reigning King Charles II, James’s (then-Anglican) brother and predecessor.

The anti-Catholic fervor of 16th–17th century England, of which these penal laws provide only a glimpse, came to a head in 1678 with the ridiculous Popish Plot. Two Anglican clerics, Titus Oates (a hoaxer) and Israel Tonge (a lunatic), had somehow managed to convince some of England’s most powerful politicians that five of their Catholic peers were plotting to kill the king and replace him with his brother James, who had converted to Catholicism a decade prior.

There was no truth to the conspiracy, but this did not stop the Earl of Shaftesbury — a man passionately opposed to “popery and arbitrary government” who would go on to become a founding leader of the Whigs — from arresting the five accused lords on October 25. Chaos and confusion caused serious delay, and it was not until December 1680 that the first (it would turn out to be the only) farce of a trial found William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, condemned to die. Proceedings for the others dragged on even longer. William Petre, 4th Baron Petre, died in the Tower of London in 1683, still awaiting trial. In 1684, the three survivors were released on bail after six years of wrongful imprisonment. Another year later all charges, including those against Stafford, were dropped. The Popish Plot was eventually recognized for the malicious sham it was, but not before claiming numerous victims — in addition to Stafford and Petre, nine Jesuit priests had been executed and twelve died in jail — and not before stoking the already violent flames of anti-Catholic rancor.

Riding the wave of hysteria that Oates and Tonge had manufactured, Shaftesbury and his supporters pushed to exclude James from succession to the throne, offering Charles’s illegitimate Protestant son, the duke of Monmouth, in his place. Charles disbanded Parliament rather than let the bill pass. Two more Parliaments mounted two more efforts to exclude James on religious grounds, and two more times Charles dissolved Parliament. After the third dissolution, in 1681, Parliament did not convene again until James succeeded his brother in 1685.

When he did take the throne, James faced two minor rebellions from would-be Protestant usurpers (Monmouth was one, the politically complicated Earl of Argyll the other), but both were quickly quieted. For the most part, his Anglican enemies had resigned themselves to the fact that a Catholic would rule England, for a time. His heir apparent, his daughter Mary, was a Protestant. For the sake of stability, they were willing to hold out through a single Catholic reign.

Tensions resurfaced, however, when James began to challenge the state religion. His principal targets were the Corporation and Test Acts. In April of 1687, the king issued a Declaration of Indulgence effectively voiding all laws that mandated active participation in the Church of England or demanded an oath to him as the supreme head of that church. The Declaration of Indulgence, also called the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience, pushed the complacence of James’s Protestant opponents to its absolute limits. When the king’s wife gave birth to a Catholic son the next year (who would supersede Mary as heir apparent), his enemies no longer had the hope of an impending Protestant renaissance to look forward to. Mere weeks after the prince’s birth, the Immortal Seven sent word to William, inviting his invasion.

As opposition to the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience (and the fear of its permanence) became the cornerstone of the revolution, the document warrants a careful examination. The actual language of the declaration shatters the popular image of the reactionary tyrant James II:

It is and has of long time been our constant sense and opinion (which upon divers occasions we have declared) that conscience ought not to be constrained nor people forced in matters of mere religion; it [coercion in religion] has ever been directly contrary to our inclination, as we think it is [contrary] to the interest of government, which it destroys by spoiling trade, depopulating countries, and discouraging strangers, and finally, that it never obtained the end for which it was employed.

The sentiment is, in a meaningful sense, thoroughly liberal. King James, who himself was a man of deep and sincere faith, refused to let any of his subjects be compelled to practice a religion that was not truly theirs. What an odd tyrant it would be whose greatest crimes were forbidding compulsory religion and insisting that he were not lord over the faith of the people.

It would be practically impossible to make the case against James on substantive grounds. It is unsurprising, then, that most who wish to justify the revolution do so on procedural grounds, asserting that James had no right to nullify laws previously passed by Parliament. The king’s own justification for the act is presented in the declaration:

And to the end that all our loving subjects may receive and enjoy the full benefit and advantage of our gracious indulgence hereby intended, and may be acquitted and discharged from all pains, penalties, forfeitures and disabilities by them or any of them incurred or forfeited, or which they shall or may at any time hereafter be liable to, for or by reason of their nonconformity or the exercise of their religion, and from all suits, troubles, or disturbances for the same, we do hereby give our free and ample pardon unto all nonconformists, recusants, and other our loving subjects, for all crimes and things by them committed or done contrary to the penal laws formerly made relating to religion and the profession or exercise thereof, hereby declaring, that this our royal pardon and indemnity shall be as good and effectual to all intents and purposes, as if every individual person had been therein particularly named, or had particular pardons under our great seal, which we do likewise declare shall from time to time be granted unto any person or persons desiring the same, willing and requiring our judges, justices, and other officers, to take notice of and obey our royal will and pleasure herein before declared.

The general indulgence was offered as an extension of the king’s dispensing power, essentially a power to pardon. A court had upheld this power in Godden v. Hales the previous year, applied specifically to a Test Act case. There was nothing particularly unseemly about the dispensing power, and certainly nothing unseemly about James’s application of it. It was a check on the power of Parliament, a means for the king to protect the rights and liberties of citizens when Parliament overstepped and infringed on them.

Objections to the king’s wielding such a power quickly descend into a stupid absolutism that even most modern monarchists would not espouse: the idea that a given system of organizing political power is inherently and infallibly the right one, just because. But systems of organization are morally neutral and can be judged only by their fruits. A monarchy with good results is a good government. A democracy with bad results is a bad government. William F. Buckley once wrote that “democracy can itself be as tyrannical as a dictatorship, since it is the extent, not the source, of government power that impinges on freedom.” It is not too radical to say that a parliamentary democracy that demands religious conformity, obedience, and participation from all its citizens has borne bad fruit, that it has impinged on freedom and descended into tyranny. It is no more radical to say that a legitimate monarch, acting well within the traditional bounds of his crown, is justified in pushing back. One might even go so far as to say that a monarch, in such a position to oppose the violation of the rights of citizens, has not only a justification but an obligation to exercise that power for the sake of the people.

The next redoubt of the revolution’s defenders is to echo the line of James’s most vocal critics that Catholicism inevitably goes hand in hand with tyrannical government, but doubling down on 17th-century anti-Catholic bigotry is hardly (I hope) a tenable position in the 21st. In exercising the dispensing power, maintaining a standing army, dissolving Parliaments, and any of the other acts to which Parliament objected, James was simply ruling within the bounds and precedents of the crown. The historical facts, including the demonstrable tyranny of the Protestant Parliament over Catholic and nonconformist minorities, quickly dispel the Catholic-tyranny myth. Bigotry and paranoia, not reason, motivated the mobs that insisted that only Protestants should hold offices of public trust.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that King James was not faultless in the conflict. His most notable offense was the trial of seven bishops in the summer of 1688. These Anglican bishops, incensed at the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience, petitioned the king, asking to be excused from reading it in their churches. When the king refused, the petition was printed and publicly distributed. James then had the bishops arrested and charged with seditious libel. While the right to petition the government was firmly established in English law, a right to such a public protest was not. The king then at least had a sound legal claim to question the propriety of the publication, although it may have been the wrong choice to do so. Should he have charged the bishops? Probably not. But, when all was said and done, they were tried by an impartial court and found not guilty. It is hardly the act of a tyrant to subject the accused to a fair trial that ends in their acquittal.

Despite that acquittal, five of the seven bishops were effectively excommunicated from the Church of England — not for their disloyalty to James, but their loyalty to him. They were just a few of the many non-jurors, who were declared schismatic for their refusal to swear an oath to William as king and supreme head of the church. The insistence of James’s opponents to enforce religious conformity clearly did not end with the expulsion of Catholics from public life.

Nor did the tyranny of Parliament end with religious conformity. In fact, post-revolution Parliament claimed more power for itself than James (or any English king) ever had. Their overreach lasted well into the next century, when the American colonists, desperate to combat Parliament’s abuses, petitioned King George III to counteract them. Their petition was hopeless, though; the king had been neutered a hundred years prior. Especially with respect to religious intolerance, the tyranny of Parliament lasted another half century still, until the penal laws against Catholics and non-conformists were finally overturned in 1829. It is certainly true that the rise of representative government had some positive results. But it is, for one thing, unreasonable to suggest that such reforms had to have come about only in the context of 1688, tinged with bigotry and illiberal at the very root. Such reforms almost certainly would have evolved even if King James had remained in power, though the course of that evolution would have been very different. And it cannot be ignored that those reforms, coming about as they did, carried (among other costs) 150 more years of oppression for the Catholics of the British Isles.

Part of the myth that has risen up around the events of 1688 is the claim that the revolution was bloodless. This is mostly true when limited to England, where Catholics made up only a minuscule 3 percent of the population and James’s political support was limited. But in Scotland, where the Stuart dynasty had its roots, men risked and gave their lives for the Jacobite claim as late as the Battle of Culloden in 1745. In Ireland, too, at the time 75 percent Catholic, James’s claim to kingship — and the freedom of conscience and religion he offered with it — was defended fiercely well beyond 1688. Men did shed blood — thousands of them — and they did it for something far greater than parliamentary supremacy.

Recognizing their sacrifice, and the faith and courage that it required, we should not call the oppression they fought — nor the lies on which it was founded — “glorious” except with the heavy and bitter irony that always hangs on such grotesque propaganda (cf. “Great Leap Forward”). It is, at best, a confused revolution that deposes a single king and raises in his place a gaggle of tyrants. But that’s not nearly as catchy a line to parrot, nor as comforting a story to tell ourselves.


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