Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAY VI.: ON THE REVOLUTION OF 1688. - The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era
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ESSAY VI.: ON THE REVOLUTION OF 1688. - Augustin Thierry, The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era 
The Historical Essays, published under the Title of “Dix Ans d’Études historiques,” and Narratives of the Merovingian Era; or, Scenes of the Sixth Century, with an Autobiographical Preface (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845).
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ON THE REVOLUTION OF 1688.
It is a custom now in fashion to cry up the English revolution of 1688, and desire William the Thirds for the salvation and vengeance of nations. This admiration and these wishes, however patriotic they may be proclaimed, are both ignorant and cowardly. Firstly, it is false that the deliverance of oppressed nations can proceed otherwise than by the nations themselves; and if liberty could really be the result of the mere fortune of some enterprising adventurer, without industry, and without public virtues, liberty would not be worth wishing for. But it is not so; the dethroners of princes do not fail to make themselves princes; the people are little more in their eyes than the well-earned recompense of a hazardous expedition, and it is necessary that this people, which has not known how to take up the interest of its own destiny, has not known how to will and act for itself, and has not known how to individualize itself, should submit to the condition of things for which we will and act, and which are disposed, because they have been willed and acted for.
Such was, in the revolution of 1688, the destiny of the English people; a stranger to the struggle in which the Stuarts fell, it appears in it only as the passive object of the dispute. It was not by its strength that James II. fell; it was not by it that William III. was victorious; and if some good did accrue to it from this event, it has no greater reason to thank itself for it, than an estate has to thank itself for thriving under the more prudent heir of a first indolent proprietor.
If it is objected that many born Englishmen lent their aid to this revolution, and called it the salvation of England, we shall answer, that before reasoning on the words of these men, we must examine what they really signified from their lips; if patriotism and liberty were concerned in them, or if the salvation of the country, when they spoke of it, did not merely signify the safety of their places, their titles, their pretensions, and their ambitious hopes. They may legitimately be suspected, when we see contrasted with the violence of their transports the sullen and cold aspect of that body which is never agitated by narrow and private interest, of that all which is called the nation, formerly so animated, active, and full of life in the movement of 1640. It was with the air of a disgusted spectator, that the nation beheld this dethronement, and solemn coronation, which the proclamations and newspapers of the new authority called liberty, it is true; singular liberty, which had come over on the ships of the favourite of Charles II., of the murderers of the De Witts, and sworn in his camps by lords with monopolies, officers with commissions, and prelates with benefices. If too exclusive a preference for the Roman Catholics had not made the Stuarts forget their first impartiality in the distribution of places, William III. would have found no friends; those who at his voice rose against the power of James II. would have been as immovable as in the times when Henry Vane was quartered alive, and as dumb as when the dragoons of Charles II. massacred the Presbyterian women. But after having coolly beheld these horrors, after living twenty years under the government which committed them, they could not endure James II. giving to Catholics all the places at court, in the church, and in the army. This is the entire secret of William’s popularity, and the pretended deliverance of 1688.
The cause which triumphed in this revolution, was not therefore the great cause of 1640, the cause of Hampden, the cause of human rights; if we seek its origin, it dates from 1683, from the first conspiracy of the ambitious malecontents. Its first patrons and victims were a candidate for the throne, and a disgraced minister; they were Monmouth and Shaftesbury. It is true, that from its birth, it boldly displayed the ensigns of patriotism; it is true that it claimed Sydney; but Sydney, a faithful depositary of the old secret of 1640, while rebelling with it, distinguished himself thoroughly from it; it was in vain that the same proscription confounded him with the partisans of this new cause; in vain the same axe cut off his head and theirs; his crime was not their crime; Sydney was guilty towards despotism; they were guilty only towards the despot.
Sydney’s cause perished with him; the other promptly recovered from its first reverse, grew and strengthened in silence. At the end of six years came its day of triumph, a day in which was seen the strange alliance of high places, large profits, and all the trappings of excessive power, with the words liberty and country; a day in which men loaded with titles stretched out their hands to men to whom titles were an insult, exclaiming, “what you have desired is obtained; liberty is come, for we reign.” In what act of this government, calling itself the offspring of the complete and perfected revolution, has a liberal and generous spirit been shown? The answer is, the Bill of Rights; a slight collection of a few principles delivered without warrant to the discretion of power; a vain and fruitless remonstrance which has been falsely called a contract, and of which power has since torn every page with impunity. It is not even true that William had the merit of accepting the Bill of Rights as a condition of royalty; royalty was without conditions for him; he left to no one, except those who had hired themselves to him, the right of reckoning with him. When the Bill of Rights was drawn up, William was king; every thing was ratified for him, even to the succession of his heirs. The Bill of Rights, at first rejected by the peers, and suddenly adopted by them on account of its insignificance, was published with the Coronation Act; and this is the slight foundation on which the fable was built of a treaty between the English people and King William.
The first act of this government, not after its definitive institution, when it might, under the shelter of authority, disregard public opinion, but before its existence had been legally decreed, at the period when it would have shown delicacy, if it had thought delicacy necessary, the first act of this government was to interdict, by a simple proclamation, all discussion on public affairs; a formal avowal that all which had been done until then, and all which was going to be done, was contrary to the will, the interest, and the reason of the people. Later, it maintained with insolent obstinacy the law of the Stuarts which established the censorship of books and the slavery of the press; it preserved this law until the precise time when, to continue it longer, it must have been newly decreed, until 1695, the term which the not-to-be-mistrusted wisdom of Charles II. had assigned to this law. All the spirit of the revolution was openly developed by the renewal of the statutes which gave the Anglicans alone the exclusive right of occupying places: thus the energetic sect of Protestant Nonconformists, the most patriotic of sects, was repudiated by the men of 1688. The men of 1688 aspired to a monopoly of places; the great crime of the Catholics in their eyes, therefore, was having endeavoured to set up one monopoly against another; and it was to repress that one ambition, that the drama of civil insurrection was played with so much ceremony. By an infamous mockery, at the same time that the people’s eternal gratitude was demanded for their deliverance from the Stuarts and the agents of the Stuarts, it was those very agents who were sought to compose the new cabinet; they were Danby, Nottingham, and Halifax. Kirke, the most ferocious of soldiers and executioners, the executor of Jefferies’ sentences, received honours and employment. And when the victims of these men presented themselves to demand against their crimes and those of their subordinates, not reprisals, but the vengeance of the laws, government, by an act of amnesty, shamelessly extended its all-powerful protection over them.
These times bore their fruits; under the woman who succeeded the Prince of Orange, the most shameless corruption became general; there was no energy but for intrigue; that repose was sought in the favours of a court, which the Sydneys sought only in proud independence. Twenty years had barely elapsed since the revolution of 1688, before the English nation cursed it; it cried, Down with the Whigs! as it had cried, Down with the Stuarts! and the Whigs, like the Stuarts, answered only by sentences of high treason, executions, new taxes, and new decrees for the support of titles and places. The pretended national succession was on the point of being violated by eminently national insurrections; the odious assistance of a foreign power was obliged to be invoked. It was the cannon of the stadtholder of Holland which protected the landing of the first George.
The Stuarts would not have done more; perhaps they would not have done so much; their power was of a nature promptly to wear itself out. They had not, to revive it, the prestige of those sonorous words, national dynasty, princes of the people’s choice, deliverers of their country; their despotism had no popular root: therefore, the independent income, the standing army, the servitude of the Parliament, which had previously been enjoyed in idea only, all these were realized under the Georges. Then, when any honest man dared to become indignant, they had means of rendering him odious, and calumniating his conduct, besides the scaffold, to awe him into silence; he could be accused before the people themselves of having indiscreetly or wickedly threatened the authority of the saviours of the nation, of having a design against the king of the public choice, against the Protestant and national dynasty . . . . Charles II. was able to kill Sydney; but it would not have been in his power to disgrace him as a traitor to the people.
It was in the reign of Charles the Second, about the year 1683, as we have said above, that we find in history the first sketch of the revolution, which, in 1688, placed a new family in the place of the family of the Stuarts. The spirit of this revolution reveals itself entirely in the conspiracy which was hatched five years before, to make the Duke of Monmouth, a natural son of Charles the Second, king, on condition, that he should be king to the profit of the disgraced Presbyterians, and of those who had sold the nation to the Stuarts, for places which the ungrateful Stuarts bestowed on others. The plot was betrayed; Monmouth, with great difficulty, obtained his life, and those of the conspirators who survived the king’s vengeance, saved themselves only by exile. Having taken refuge in Holland, they continued their projects and manœuvres; but they chose a new leader; and it was one very different from the young and weak Monmouth whom they pointed out, to take the place of the King of England, and be the protector of their interests. Their choice fell on the Prince William of Orange, stadtholder of Holland, the nephew of Charles the Second, and son-in-law of the Duke of York, powerful, active, experienced, a zealous Protestant, and immoderately ambitious; an undoubted enemy of English liberty; for, in 1680, he had protested as an ally of the royal family, and for his own part interested in the inviolable preservation of the inheritance of regal power, against the barriers which the parliament attempted to oppose to the authority of a Catholic successor. Monmouth had returned to Holland to his former partisans. From the moment that William had been adopted in his place, and when his presence became inconvenient to the faction which repudiated him, Monmouth was turned out of Holland.
This misfortune, which disconcerted the hopes of all his life, led him suddenly to venture on a very violent determination. With the assistance of the few friends who remained to him, and of some adventurers whom he hired, he made an invasion into England. James the Second was just beginning his reign. Monmouth, in his first proclamations, accused the new king of being a tyrant, and announced himself as the revenger of outraged liberty: at this patriotic voice, the citizens flocked in crowds to his camp; but the men with titles, places and power, did not come, and they were those whom Monmouth desired. In order to engage them in his cause, he made new manifestos, in which he called James the Second an usurper of the throne: he proclaimed himself the legitimate king, and threatened with his vengeance those who were incredulous to his words, and the rebels against his authority.
The citizens who had followed him immediately quitted him, and the nobles and the powerful did not come, the more perhaps because Monmouth had the misfortune of having for a moment been popular. The royal army encountered him almost without an army; he was taken and put to death. On learning this enterprise, the Prince of Holland had hastened to offer to James the Second to take himself the command of the royal troops against Monmouth, against that rival whose indiscreet audacity, by opening the eyes of the King of England, might have caused the failure of the other plot, and spoil the fortune which William had promised himself.
But James the Second’s security was boundless; he noways doubted the future; full of blind confidence, he pursued his plans in favour of the Catholics; already had most of the places passed into their hands; they filled the council, the fleet and the army. The Episcopal clergy, whose authority was still intact, aided him in his measures; this assistance, adroitly regained by Charles II., was of great importance to the royal power: James forgot this, and had the imprudence to deprive himself of it. He brought over to London a Roman nuncio: he established Catholic bishoprics. At the sight of these new rivals, the heads of the clergy deserted the royal cause; and instead of the maxims of passive submission, and the divine right, with which the pulpits had resounded, nothing was heard but a cry of alarm on the dangers of the Church, and the duty of resisting. These sacred voices encouraged the murmurs; manifestos were published against the inroads of the Papists into public offices; leagues were formed to maintain employments in the hands of the Protestant families; engagements were made to employ all forces, even the most extreme, that of strength, to change the mind of the king. The want of Catholic heirs gave some hopes of succeeding in this extremity. But the sudden birth of a son of James the Second opened the war and hastened the blows. Messages were instantly interchanged between the refugees in Holland, and the malecontents in England; men were recruited; arms prepared: this was the event which produced in the year 1688 the catastrophe of the revolution, which had been hatching during the last five years.
James the Second persisted in his carelessness; he was especially far from suspecting the Prince of Orange, whose friendship for the English exiles appeared to him only a sympathy of religion. Such were his feelings, when a dispatch from his minister at Hague announced to him suddenly that great preparations were making in the ports of Holland for an invasion of England; he turned pale as he read it, the paper fell from his hands, and he understood for the first time his dangers and his weakness. He called the people to arms; the people remained deaf to his voice; whilst lords, nobles, bishops and men paid from his treasury, enlisted on the side of his rival. William, detained some time by a contrary wind, landed on the 5th of September, 1688, at Torbay, in Devonshire. The inhabitants of the neighbouring towns covered the shore, contemplating the spectacle of these vessels and soldiers; they were silent, passionless and joyless, like people witnessing the preparations for a combat which does not concern them. The army of the opponents directed its march towards Exeter, and published its manifestos. Much was said in them about the interests of Protestantism, a little about the interests of liberty, and above every thing, they endeavoured to persuade that King James’s new-born son was a supposititious child. These manifestos were read; but no citizen was roused. During nine whole days William advanced without finding either friends or enemies. But friends soon flocked to him; these were the great men of the opposition, military officers, and all the nobility of the counties of Devonshire and Somersetshire. In the neighbouring counties, the same class of men took to arms; compacts of association were sworn between them and the prince. The governors of towns hoisted his standards, men enlisted under him in virtue of his brevets, and the king’s officers deserted to him with their troops. All the men whose patrimony was in the government, all those to whom a change of king was to be an immense gain, or an entire loss, agitated over all England: but those whose existence owed nothing to power, were at rest; the opposing army had gained only a small number, and the other army reckoned only in its ranks the militia assembled by force. The king, however, advanced, that he might not die without fighting; at every step of his march fresh defections diminished his forces, and to every order he gave, the officers replied by murmurs, reproaching him for his bad fortune, which compromised their situations. Those whom he had most loaded with favours, were the most impatient at being detained near him, being anxious to obtain from his rival the preservation of what they had. James the Second found nobody in whom he could confide: unable to take any resolution of his own, he neither dared to act nor to wait, and the enemies did not stop. Instead of advancing, he retreated to London. At the first halt the royal army made in its retreat, Anne, the king’s daughter, and George of Denmark, his son-in-law, left the camp and repaired to that of the enemy. At this news, he became dejected and despaired of his own cause, which even his children repudiated. He offered to capitulate with William; William refused to receive the bearer of this message: James the Second, uncertain of the projects of his rival, and fearing for his life, threw the royal seal into the Thames, and fled to the coast to insure himself a retreat. The royal troops were dispersed, and the other army advanced easily.
Meanwhile the nobles and royal agents who had not left London, thought that the people of that city, seeing the king gone, and the prince still distant, might think for itself, and make some struggle for liberty which might complicate the war. To prevent this danger, which menaced their places, and which, by an ingenious transposition, they called the danger of the town, they hastily informed the Prince of Orange that his competitor had taken flight, and that he should hasten his march; they also sent orders to the leaders of the disbanded troops: these troops rallied, and at the same period they did so, the lords availed themselves of the rumour of their dispersion to disturb the citizens by a salutary alarm, which was intended to dispel all ideas of independence. They spread the report that the Papists and Irish of the royal army were everywhere massacreing the Protestants. In a few days this false report spread all over England; every one thought they heard in the distance the shouts of the murderers, and the groans of the dying; fires were lighted, bells were rung: every one thought himself in danger of his life,—had no feeling, no ideas, no cares, but for this danger; and if anything was desired, it was that the chances of insurrection should not be joined to present dangers; it was that William’s victory should swiftly put an end to such anxieties.
James the Second was escaping in disguise; he was recognized at Feversham by some men, who insulted him and kept him captive. From his prison he wrote to the nobles, who had been exercising his power in London, to demand liberty and an escort; his letter was brought them by a countryman, who wept as he delivered it. The lords showed themselves less feeling, and their first reply was, that this affair did not concern them. Some few, more sharp-sighted than the rest, represented that this useless harshness might be ill rewarded by the future king, who would wish to appear humane, if it were only from propriety. All gave way before such an argument; and they sent two hundred soldiers to deliver James, and accompany him to the sea. But the king, having recovered his freedom, refused to follow his escort, and returned to London. He was applauded at his entry by some of those whom their obscure and private lives made strangers to the present war; deprived of his odious authority, he appeared to them only a man, and a man in distress; and on this account they pitted him. This was not the case with those who during his prosperity had enriched themselves with his bounty: reduced to the simple state of men, he was no longer anything to them; from them his reception was cold and contemptuous: his presence constrained them; for it rendered them suspicious to him to whom the power of enriching by pensions, and aggrandizing by commissions, was about to belong. Fortunately, this constraint did not last long; James was ordered to quit London. He was still at Whitehall when William’s soldiers took up their abode in the palace. That prince entered the town as a conqueror, and triumphant, at the head of his troops, amidst the acclamations of those whose fortune was to increase with his own. Some satisfaction appeared on the faces of the citizens, who had been frightened by the idea of having their throats cut by the royal soldiers; but it was a quiet pleasure, and which showed the belief in a past danger rather than the feeling of actual prosperity.
James the Second had submitted to the orders of William of Orange; he had left London, and the troops of the conqueror were encamped in the town. The war was ended, the revolution was accomplished. Nothing was now required to insure to William and his friends all the profits of victory, but sanctioning it by legal acts. This was to be the work of a parliament. The lords in the town, united to the nobles of the victorious army, took upon themselves the responsibility of authentically recognizing in the prince the supreme right of assembling the Commons, and what was still more important to the conquerors of those days, the right of giving places, and raising taxes. For more regularity, the members of the two last Houses, which had sat under the Stuarts, were assembled at Westminster, and an address, similar to that of the Lords, demanded of them. They quietly repaired to the place of their sittings, and hardly had they taken their seats, when they learned that a body of the seditious populace surrounded the hall, uttering imprecations and threats of revenge against those who should dare to vote against the interest of William of Orange. They did not resist the presence of this popular force, which the same William had known how to render so terrible to the de Witts, and the address was voted. This provisory Parliament was then dissolved; and those of its members who had already terminated their stipulations with power, dispersed themselves in the counties to influence new choices. Meanwhile, William appointed men to situations, maintained some in them, transferred places, raised five millions by taxes on London, and forbade all political discussion by proclamations made in his name alone.
It was on the 22d of January 1689, (1688 old style,) that the new Parliament assembled, and took the name of convention,—the name which thirty years before was borne by the assembly which legalized Monck’s treachery and Charles the Second’s royalty. In the address voted by the two Houses, William was called a deliverer doubtless on account of the number of men he had just saved from the danger of living without places; the House of Commons then voted that the throne was vacant, because James the Second had destroyed the mutual contract which bound him to the people. The Commons ought to have stated the date of this mutual contract and its clauses. In making the equation, a false one in this case, of the ideas of the king, and obliged by contract towards the people, they made an equation fatal for the future of the ideas of the people, and obliged towards the king; they established beforehand, that from the moment that William became king, there would be in virtue of that sole title of king, an obligatory compact between William and the English nation,—a mysterious and occult compact, without express condition, without stipulated security; the vain hypothesis of which, without in the slightest degree augmenting the effective force of the subjected party, was to arm the reigning party with a logical authority, capable of legitimizing violence, and making oppression a right founded on the consent of the oppressed. There is no more terrible argument against nations than the false attestation of national will; it is by the aid of similar fictions that the rebels against despotism, and the heroes of liberty, are with impunity branded with the name of traitors.
The nobles of that period were not deceived by it; in their examination of the votes of the Commons, they passed rapidly over the idea of the mutual contract, and only discussed seriously the proclamation of the vacancy of the throne. Several pretended that it was wrong to represent as destroyed, the continuity of succession which had been the strength of that regal power to which they were indebted for so many benefits. They were seconded in this by the men who, having been the last to join the Prince of Orange, had thus deserved little from him, and would have preferred the reign of his wife, the daughter of the deposed king. This article was nearly being suppressed, and passed at last only by means of a capitulation between the friends of the prince and those of the princess. When the decisive question was put, “Who shall be king?” the reply was this: “The lords spiritual and temporal decide that William and Mary, Prince and Princess of Orange, shall be king and queen together; the prince only, in the name of both, shall exercise regal authority.”
These debates lasted twenty days; and in the midst of so much care for the organization of the government, which called itself a national one, there had been no mention made either of the nation or of liberty. Once only, in a conference between the two Houses, some voices were raised to demand that certain limits to the power of the future king should be established. A messenger of William’s came to the men who had spoken thus. “Do not insist,” he said to them, “on the point of limiting a power which the prince wishes to possess entirely. I must tell you from him, that he has means of punishing you; and that he would enforce them. Fear lest by disgusting him with the success he has recently obtained, you should force him to retire, and abandon you to the mercy of King James.” This insulting reply shows what William thought of the pretended compact violated by James II, and revenged by the English nation; if he had thought that the king had been dethroned by the nation, he would not have made to that nation, capable of ridding itself of King James, the threat of delivering it up to his anger. When all was ended, when the Commons had received from the Lords the act which declared the prince and princess king and queen, and their posterity after them, a kind of bashfulness came over the Houses, and they drew up in the form of a bill, a list of the excesses of power which had caused the last two reigns to be hated. Thence arose what was called the Bill of Rights, an exposition of principles without any security; a simple appeal to the humanity and reason of the rulers. In it, it is said, that elections ought to be free, that parliaments ought often to be assembled, that citizens may make petitions and have arms according to their condition, vague maxims, as easy to elude as to proclaim, and of which the most respected was not strictly observed in England for the space of ten years. The Bill of Rights still exists, and it is under its easy rule that the traffic of represented towns goes on, and parliaments last seven years.
Thus one quality was wanting to the revolution of 1688, and this quality is precisely the one with which it is gratuitously honoured; this revolution was not a national one, that is to say a revolution made by the hands, and for the profit of those who derive no advantage from public taxes, and none of the honour, none of the credit of public authority, whose life is perfectly private; who have no concern whether the government belongs to such or such a man, or has such or such a form; but are concerned in this, that the government, whatever it may be, or whoever exercises it, should be in the absolute impossibility of violating that which is eternally sacred, eternally inviolable, liberty. If the revolution of 1688 had been made by and for these men, we should not at the present day, in England, see them besieging authority with their claims, and threatening it with their insurrections.
We also have had our revolution of 1688: it is no longer a trial we have to make; we know in what state of mind a similar revolution places a nation, and if, in undergoing it, it must blush for or glorify itself. When he, who was our William the Third,* was preceded, at his return to Paris, by pieces of cannon, burning matches, and naked swords, did we sincerely believe in our power and our wills, of which he called himself the work? Did we truly persuade ourselves that it was by us, and for us, that he once more trampled on us? It was his interest to inspire us with pride in the midst of our nothingness, to inflate us with that vanity which fiction has rendered ridiculous, with the foolish pride of the insect that boasts of guiding the chariot, when the chariot is carrying it away, and about to crush it. Despotism has especially free play, when it can reply to the murmuring people: It is you who have chosen me.
God forbid that such a reply should again be made to us. If we have the misfortune to be oppressed, let us never have the shame of being called willing slaves; we shall escape one and the other, by pursuing calmly and with constancy the work of liberty so happily begun by our fathers, and of which the foundations were dispersed by the first head of a pretended national dynasty. What matter the form and substance of the rock he lifts to the Sisyphus of fable? In the same way, what matter the form and origin of power to nations? It is by its weight and their weakness that power crushes them. Let us raise up in our laws and especially in our minds, inviolable barriers and forts against all tyranny, whether of ancient or modern form, whether of ancient or modern date: let us leave the rest to time, and never disgrace ourselves by conspiring with fortune.*
[* ] Napoleon, in 1815.
[* ] There is this difference between the revolutions of 1688 and 1830, that the latter is really a national revolution, since all classes of the nation, one only excepted, assisted in it. The people saved itself, fought for its own cause, and all the power of the new royalty is derived from the popular victory. If I had found myself with the opinions I held at the age of twenty-four years, in presence of this revolution and its political results, I should certainly have pronounced as one-sided and contemptuous a judgment; age has rendered me less enthusiastic in ideas, and more indulgent for facts.