A Seventeenth-Century Trump?

Democrats are outraged. From their perspective, the worst human has assumed the highest office in the land. Trump is allegedly so bad, there have even been suggestions that the Electoral College rebuke over two hundred years of tradition and elect Hillary Clinton as president, thereby denying Trump a legitimate victory. Green Party demands for recounts in Michigan and Wisconsin threaten to delay if not derail a final vote of college electors to ratify the election result. Michael Signer argues in Time Magazine that the Electoral College was designed precisely to stop a “tyrannical mass leader” like Trump. To many liberals, these ideas make sense.

An analogous event happened in late seventh century England when unprecedented steps were taken to ensure the “worst possible human” didn’t maintain the highest office in the land. The culprit’s name was James II. His crime? He was Catholic.

After the English Civil War and the reign of Oliver Cromwell in the middle of the seventeenth century, Charles II was “restored” to the English throne. Charles accepted Anglicanism (although he was received in the Catholic Church on his deathbed), but there was a shadow over much of his reign because his younger brother and heir to the throne, James II, was openly Catholic (he converted around 1670).

English antipathy to Catholicism in the second half of the seventeenth century cannot be exaggerated. Catholics were akin to twenty-first century racists. The derogatory term to describe them was Papist. They were scapegoated and persecuted. They had to be eliminated. They weren’t fit to rule. They were… deplorable.

Opposition to James II was so strong, it led to the creation of the West’s first political party, the Whigs—the liberals of their day. The Whig Party had one goal, prevent James from inheriting the throne, despite his legitimate claim. He was to Whigs what Trump is to liberals. His reigned threatened the nation. Everything that had been gained would be lost.

James II ascension to the throne after Charles II death in 1685 can be likened to Trump’s victory: Life as we know it is over. There were, in fact, rebellions against James. Not My King could have been uttered to describe James. Audaciously, he allowed Catholics to occupy high offices in England and he sought religious freedom for Catholics. Things only got worse when a male heir was produced, suggesting perpetual Catholic rule. The Whigs had to act.

They hatched a plan. James II’s daughter was Mary, a legitimate heir to the throne. And she was Protestant. She lived in the Netherlands with her husband, William of Orange, a prince. Radical steps were taken—equivalent of the Electoral College rebuking Trump—when the Whigs wrote letters to William and Mary, offering them the English throne, if they could overthrow James II. It was unprecedented, but necessary for the Whigs. The fate of the nation hung in the balance. William and Mary agreed.

In October 1688, William’s fleet, with roughly 40,000 men, set sail for England. Upon landing, James’ army melted away, reluctant to fight for a king they were taught to despise. After minimal bloodshed, James evacuated the throne and fled to France in January 1689. This is England’s “Glorious Revolution” The King was overthrown, a seventeenth century coup d’etat against a hated Papist.

William and Mary were proclaimed joint monarchs by Parliament, but they became “limited monarchs.” Their powers were curbed by a “Bill of Rights,” which required free elections, freedom of speech and prohibited levying taxes without consent of Parliament. In theory, there was religious toleration, except a Catholic could never take the throne in England. This remains the case. Unlike the Tory royalists, Whigs sought to expand the power of Parliament at the expense of the monarchy.

The Whigs and their anti-Catholic zeal may seem strange to us, but Whigs included some of the intellectual luminaries of the seventeenth century, such as Isaac Newton and John Locke (history is littered with very intelligent people believing very irrational things).

The Glorious Revolution needed intellectual justification, and Locke provided it. In his Second Treatise on Government (1690), Locke argued that in the state of nature, all men are free and equal. People originally came together in the state of nature to protect their liberty and property (Protestant feared Catholics in England would return their property to the Church). Locke stated “Political power is that power which every man in the state of nature has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors, whom the society has set over itself with this express or tacit trust that it shall be employed for their own good.” Locke continued that a contract existed between the government and the governed, and when the government violated the contract, it can be overthrown. Implicitly, James II violated this contract.

Locke’s interpretation of the Glorious Revolution had profound historical consequences. It contributed to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson and American Revolutionaries inherited Locke’s views about the nature of government, the belief in equality of men, and the subsequent justness of revolution.

Will liberals have as much success as Whigs in preventing their bete noir from achieving the most powerful position in the land? Probably not. This only demonstrates the strength of anti-Catholic sentiment in late seventeenth century England.

Image credit: KENWOOD HOUSE (SUFFOLK COLLECTION) “James II as Duke of York” by Studio of Sir Peter LELY (1618-1680).

David Byrne

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David Byrne earned his doctorate in history from Claremont Graduate University. His research focuses on the history of ideas, especially the relationship between theology and thought. His most recent publication is titled "The Victory of the Proletariat is Inevitable: The Millenarian Nature of Marxism." It appeared in Kritike: An Online Journal of Philosophy.

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