Outrage Factory: No, We Didn’t Invent “The Rule of Law”

Well, my relationship with Facebook took yet another step toward ending. The Notes feature no longer exists. It was a feature I relied on for longer posts like this one below that included lots of texts but also pictures, videos, and links. Nobody reads much of what I write anymore and I think part of that is because people don’t care for what I write; but another is the dumbing down of the internet with outrage and “scroll, click, share, and scroll some more” formats. Taking away Notes is yet another step away from thoughtful discourse and toward “click ‘n’ scroll.”

This matters to me whether anyone reads it or not. As I’ve said before, as my Facebook page slowly dies and molders in an online grave, nobody will care. But maybe someday someone will find it — even if it is aliens or monkeys.

I know, you’re wondering, “Is Trump more like Charles I or James II, right now?” 

Great question. I think it’s pretty clear that, at the moment anyway, he’s looking an awful lot like James II. Something that could mean we’ll survive this tumult and learn some important lessons. I believe I found a section of Macaulay’s History of England online. I don’t have a hard copy to verify, but I’m pretty sure the section I quote is Macaulay’s. His version of England’s history has been criticized and challenged over the years, which is appropriate, but this “Whig history” is still relevant today.

James learned nothing — or all the wrong lessons — from his father’s experience with Parliament. Remember Charles I was in open and violent warfare with Parliament and ended up executed. I posted a video of the moment when, one could argue, that the English Civil War began, when Charles burst into Parliament and sat in the speakers chair demanding the arrest of some of its members.

Unlike his brother Charles II, James rubbed the English people’s face in his Catholicism and his tilt toward the continent, especially France who paid him bribes. 

Worse, he stoked religious turmoil. Think about Trump’s rubbing of the open sore of immigration and it’s inevitable connection to racism. James kept finding ways to stir up this controversy that had been dormant since the time of Elizabeth, including surprising everyone with a male heir — longer story, but important. 

What finally set the fuse was when James decided to allow everyone in the Kingdom to do what they wanted to do when it came to religion; it was called the Declaration of Indulgence. 

Here’s Macaulay: 

“On April 4 appeared the memorable Declaration of Indulgence. In this document the king avowed that it was his earnest wish to see his people members of that Church to which he himself belonged. But since that could not be he announced his intention to protect them in the free exercise of their religion. He authorised both Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters to perform their worship publicly.”

Declaring religious freedom and tolerance sounds great to our ears, but it was illegal. Roman Catholicism was essentially illegal. For the King to unilaterally announce its toleration it was in contravention to laws passed by Parliament and approved by his predecessors. As if that wasn’t enough, it would set Protestants against Catholics in the streets; in was an incitement for violence. 

It’s important for an American audience to understand that THIS was the move of an absolute monarch. Macaulay again,

“That the declaration was unconstitutional is universally agreed, for a monarch competent to issue such a document is nothing less than an absolute ruler.”

The Declaration was an incitement, unconstitutional, and unpopular — but it was also attempting to grab absolute power, something that Macauly points out was not especially English nor had been since the middle ages: 

“One wise policy was during the Middle Ages pursued by England alone. Though to the monarch belonged the power of the sword, the nation retained the power of the purse. The Continental nations ought to have acted likewise; as they failed to conserve this safeguard of representation with taxation, the consequence was that everywhere, excepting in England, parliamentary institutions ceased to exist. England owed this singular felicity to her insular situation.”

There is lots of room to debate Macaulay’s version of history, but I think he gets it mostly right. England had never really been like France which truly had a monarch with absolute power. Our history and the legacy of our ancestors is one of continual balance and imbalance between what we’d call executive, legislative, and judicial power and privilege.

Again, for Americans schooled with the “we-broke-from-an-absolute-monarch” falsehood, this is critical to understand. At almost every point in English history, really OUR history, violence and foment occurred when monarchs tried for more power, power they DID NOT HAVE, even as far back as Henry III (we’ll touch on in a minute). Courts, kings, and parliaments have feuded since the Conquest, when William I successfully invaded England in 1066.  

When they received the Declaration the trusty clergy sprung to life, writing a petition explaining why they could not promulgate the Declaration. They supported the King and all that, but they would NOT read the thing from the pulpit. 

“After reading the petition, the king’s countenance grew dark, and he exclaimed, “This is a standard of rebellion !””

He threw the bishops, soon to be lionized as The Seven Bishops in prison. Then it started getting worse. This will sound familiar. 

“For a short time the king stood aghast at the violence of the tempest he had raised.”

It got worse for James. The Bishops were found not guilty and let go, yet another example of why England was a country of laws far before the United States existed and claimed — at least in your middle school history class — to have invented the idea. Here’s Macaulay’s great description of James’ reaction to the acquittal: 

“The king was greatly disturbed at the news of the acquittal, and exclaimed in French. “So much the worse for them.” He was at the moment in the camp at Hounslow, where he had been reviewing the troops. Hearing a great shout behind him, he asked what the uproar meant. “Nothing,” was the answer; “the soldiers are glad that the bishops are acquitted.” “Do you call that nothing?” exclaimed the king. And then he repeated, “So much the worse for them.” He might well be out of temper. His defeat had been complete and most humiliating””

Not that long after, James fled for France, and somewhere I read, while on the boat rowing him on the Thames to his escape, he took the Great Seal of State and let it slip into the water and sink. He was more about James and less about his obligations as King James. Selfish and petulant, he left town ignominiously and under cover of darkness

He had not abdicated, however, and so there was a moment of historic peculiarity. The throne was not technically vacant — James and his son and grandson would continue to claim it well into the 18th century — but abandoned. A group of luminaries sent a letter to James’ Daughter Mary and her husband William, King of the Netherlands, inviting them to rule England as joint monarchs. Here’s Macaulay’s take: 

“William and Mary were proclaimed King and Queen of the United Kingdom, and thus was consummated the English Revolution. It was of all revolutions the least violent and yet the most beneficent. It finally decided the great question whether the popular element which had, ever since the age of Fitzwalter and de Montfort, been found in the English polity, should be destroyed by the monarchical element, or should be suffered to develop itself freely, and to become dominant.”

Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester at the Battle of Evesham,4 August 1265

Back to Henry III and a name dropped here by Macaulay, Simon de Montfort. Montfort fought a rebellion against Henry III back in the 13th Century and is considered the father of Parliament. Yes, the 13th Century. That doesn’t even take into consideration all the other figures that resisted executive authority between the Conquest in 1066 and 1688. Montfort in my estimation was perhaps the most heroic of the challengers of executive power if not the most principled. The most principled would have to be Sir Thomas More in the 16th century.

But the point is, Americans did not invent democracy or rule of law in 1776 or 1789, we inherited it. And we are, in many ways, repeating history. If we could only take a breath and understand this, fewer people would be getting upset and worse, hurt and killed. As I’ve said before, history is about what happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen.

Take it easy. We’ll get through this. If Trump is like James, the institutions will function like the human body and heal the damage; if we make him like Charles I, a martyr of the rural gentry becoming less powerful as self-made merchants in the city began to rise (see Christopher Hill) — then we are, for sure, headed for Civil War. 

History is important not just to show off how much I know, but because it gives us a choice in how the future plays out. Knowing about James does nothing to solve today’s problems, but applying that knowledge and lessons might. Spend more time thinking than scrolling. 

The attack on the capitol building, riots last summer, and battles between aggressive legislators and executives is nothing new, and they will — God willing — persist long after you’re dead. Our system, the one we inherited from that rainy island some call Old Blighty, is what Benjamin Franklin was really referring to when he said, “if you can keep it;” such a thing is harder to throw away if you know exactly what it is and where it came from.