Lawful Resistance

Blair Worden

  • Algernon Sidney and the English Republic 1623-1677 by Jonathan Scott
    Cambridge, 258 pp, £27.50, August 1988, ISBN 0 521 35290 8
  • Seeds of Liberty: 1688 and the Shaping of Modern Britain by John Miller
    Souvenir, 128 pp, £15.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 285 62839 9
  • Reluctant Revolutionaries: Englishmen and the Revolution of 1688 by W.A. Speck
    Oxford, 267 pp, £17.50, July 1988, ISBN 0 19 822768 X
  • War and Economy in the Age of William III and Marlborough by D.W. Jones
    Blackwell, 351 pp, £35.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 631 16069 8
  • Robert Harley: Speaker, Secretary of State and Premier Minister by Brian Hill
    Yale, 259 pp, £25.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 300 04284 1
  • A Kingdom without a King: The Journal of the Provisional Government in the Revolution of 1688 by Robert Beddard
    Phaidon, 192 pp, £14.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7148 2500 X

How should a decisive historical event be commemorated? In the history of the British Isles no event has been more decisive than the Revolution of 1688. It defeated a vigorous attempt to impose royal absolutism, and secured the principle of Parliamentary consent. It made possible the emergence of free speech and of an independent judiciary. It was the critical episode in the transformation of Britain from a minor power with a dynastic foreign policy to a major one with an imperial destiny. It laid the foundations of the constitutional practices which would be exported round the world. In Scotland it overthrew the Episcopalian state church and led to the Act of Union. In Ireland it crushed the Catholic bid for emancipation and entrenched the Protestant ascendancy.

The legacy is a mixed one, but it merits public scrutiny on its tercentenary. Yet the commemoration has been low-key where it has not been evasive. While the Dutch, in whose annals the annexation of Britain by William of Orange is a less momentous occurrence, have been celebrating it without inhibition, the response of the Mother of Parliaments was to provide a poky exhibition in the Banqueting House which was taken off before the anniversary of William’s invasion had been reached, and which contrived to obliterate the Irish dimension of the Revolution. A mature nation should be able to confront its past without resort to institutionalised forgetting. But then the notion of national maturity has been a part of the trouble. For it is not merely the Irish problem, or the relationship of England to Britain, that has stirred English unease, but the association of 1688 with concepts of progress and liberty on which historians, and perhaps their readers too, have been turning their backs.

Scruples about 1688 are not new, and no commemoration would be complete without them or without reflection upon the troubled passage of the Revolution’s reputation across the centuries. The deposition of James left the English with a guilty conscience which they have never shaken off. The men who drove the lawful hereditary ruler from the throne and replaced him by a usurping Dutchman searched vainly for a theory to justify their coup. They might claim that James, far from being deposed, had merely abdicated a throne which it had consequently been incumbent on them to fill, but they knew that it had taken an invading army to drive him away. They could claim to have ‘restored’ political rights, not invented them, but that argument recalled the great political blasphemy of the 17th century, the regicide of 1649, that ‘first year of blessing by God’s freedom restored’. They could invoke a liberty to resist a tyrant who had broken his contract with his people, but if that entitlement were once admitted, then the new regime might prove as vulnerable to it as the old.

By the later 18th century, when even the Tory Hume could acknowledge the lawfulness of resistance to tyranny, constitutional anxieties about the example of 1688 were on the retreat. In their place came the social ones created by the emergence of popular radicalism and by the French Revolution. The doctrine of resistance, which had hitherto threatened rulers, now threatened the ruling class. In 1808 Francis Jeffrey, writing in the Whig Edinburgh Review, lamented that it had become ‘unfashionable, and not very popular, to talk of the tyranny of the Stuarts, and the triumph of the Revolution, in the tone that was universal and established within these last 20 years’, for now ‘the Revolution of 1688 could not be mentioned with praise, without giving some indirect encouragement to the Revolution of 1789; and it was thought as well to say nothing in favour of Hampden, or Russell, or Sydney, for fear it might give spirits to Robespierre, Danton or Marat.’ Four years later the same journal warned, in terms drawn from Fox, that while ‘the doctrine of resistance’ was to be commended for having ‘placed the present Royal family on the throne of these kingdoms, it is a doctrine more fit to be inculcated on princes, than rashly instilled into the people.’

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