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JAMES II AND THE ANCIENT CONSTITUTION - Joyce Lee Malcom, The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, vol. 2 
The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, 2 vols, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 2.
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JAMES II AND THE ANCIENT CONSTITUTION
Immediately upon his brother’s death in February 1685, James went to the Privy Council, where he promised the councilors that “however he had ben misrepresented as affecting arbitrary power, they should find the contrary, for that the laws of England had made the King as greate a monarch as he could desire.”25 To their relief he vowed to “maintain the Government both in Church and State, as by Law establish’d” and to “never depart from the just rights and prerogatives of the Crown . . . and preserve (the nation) in all its lawful rights and liberties.” No Stuart, however, had a greater opportunity to become absolute than James. His income was enviable, his army greatly enlarged because of brief rebellions against his succession, and his opportunity to pack parliaments unequalled.26 As part of Charles’s campaign to destroy the Whigs in 1680 he recalled some fifty-eight municipal charters and remodelled them to narrow their electorate and provide more direct Crown control over their officers. In his short reign James would regrant 121 charters to the same end.27 But it was James’s religion that was to cause the greatest outrage, for promises, especially where religion was concerned, could be broken, as Louis XIV proved shortly after James ascended the throne. Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes and with it the promise to French Protestants of perpetual and irrevocable freedom of conscience.
Although he had left the Church of England James did not seek to overthrow it. However, he immediately began placing Catholics in sensitive posts, such as in the army, dispensing with the penal laws meant to prohibit their service. Adding insult to injury, he then denigrated the Protestant-led militia. Both houses of his otherwise obedient parliament took great exception to what they saw as illegal exercise of the prerogative to place the army in Catholic hands. James prorogued Parliament and dismissed from all their posts those members who had opposed him. The next year he issued batches of dispensations granting Catholics, but not Protestant dissenters, immunity from the penal laws. Just in case his Anglican clergy considered swerving from their unquestioning obedience to the Crown, special “Directions concerning Preaching” were issued in March 1686 against polemical preaching, and a new Court of High Commission was created, renamed the Ecclesiastical Commission, to enforce the ban.
When heavy-handed pressure on town officials and the aristocracy failed to gain sufficient support for his policy of toleration for Catholics, James decided to include Protestant dissenters in his largesse and turned to his old enemies, the Whigs, for support. In April 1687 he used his prerogative to issue a Declaration of Indulgence generally dispensing with penal acts for both Catholics and dissenters. But this would need parliamentary sanction and to ensure a favorable new parliament James used the control the revised municipal charters afforded him to begin a series of mass purges of municipal officials. Hundreds of men who failed to endorse the king’s toleration policy were also purged from the commission of the peace and militia offices.28 James’s base of support narrowed with each purge as he alienated hundreds of traditional supporters, only to find dissenters and Whigs reluctant to embrace toleration that included Catholics.29 Undaunted, he reissued the Declaration of Indulgence in April 1688, this time with the requirement that the bishops order it to be read from every Anglican pulpit on two successive Sundays. In response the archbishop of Canterbury and six bishops submitted a petition questioning the legality of this unilateral suspension of all penal laws. The seven clerics were promptly clapped in the Tower to stand trial for seditious libel. While the bishops’ protests may have been self-interested, they had a valid constitutional argument. The king’s power to dispense with a law in a particular instance was an accepted part of his prerogative. But James’s practice of dispensing with a whole batch of laws in order to employ Catholics raised serious questions about royal authority to overturn legislation. This Declaration went further. It sought to suspend all penal laws for all those subject to them. The king’s supporters were quick to point out the inconsistency of Anglican clergy who fervently preached absolute obedience to a divine right monarch but ignored this duty when their own interests were at stake.
June 1688 was the turning point in James’s reign.30 On 10 June against expectation the queen gave birth to a son, ensuring a Catholic succession. Twenty days later in an extraordinary trial a jury found the seven bishops not guilty. That same day as Protestants noisily celebrated, six peers and a bishop secretly sent a message to William of Orange, husband of James’s daughter Mary, beseeching him to save the realm.
[25. ]John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. deBeer (Oxford, 1955), 4:411-12.
[26. ]James was the first English king since Henry VIII to enjoy financial independence, which John Kenyon reminds us was “a fact of crucial constitutional importance.” Kenyon, Stuart Constitution, 364. Two rebellions early in his reign, Monmouth’s rebellion and Argyll’s rebellion, enabled him to boost his regular income. He was also granted proceeds of duties on wine, vinegar, tobacco, and sugar for eight years. The Scots Parliament voted James £260,000 a year for life. As a result he had a yearly revenue of more than £2,000,000. He had an army of forty thousand men. Jennifer Carter judges that he had “made himself so strong militarily that the Revolution of 1688 would not have been possible without outside intervention by armed forces.” Carter, “Law, Courts and Constitution,” 78. On the other hand James’s army itself was split over his policy of introducing Catholics, and during the crisis of 1688 suffered from famous and serious defections.
[27. ]Carter, “Law, Courts and Constitution,” 91.
[28. ]More than 250 JPs were discharged. See Jones, Country and Court, 232.
[29. ]See Joyce Lee Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), 110-11.
[30. ]William of Orange had been planning for an invasion at least a year before, however. See J. R. Jones, The Revolution of 1688 in England (London, 1972), 209.