The complexity and bloodiness of liberalism’s roots don’t make it quite so condemnable as its critics imagine.
My colleague Declan Leary raises some interesting points in his attempt to cast the Glorious Revolution as something less than glorious, but he also makes a few significant mistakes. His characterization of James II as a sincere believer in religious toleration and liberty undone by Protestant bigots confuses the king’s short-term political calculations for actual beliefs. His cherry-picking egregious examples of anti-Catholic hysteria in England ignores the very real threat of the Counter-Reformation to Protestant states across Europe. And his narrow focus on the back-and-forth over the Test Act leaves out the larger context of James’s persistent attempts to expand the military and royal authority.
Leary reads James’s support for the Test Act as a testament to the monarch’s noble ideals about religious liberty, uncritically quoting the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience as some sort of proto-Jeffersonian manifesto. This is plainly untrue. James was not an intransigent tyrant, but he was certainly an autocrat in the 17th century mold (more on that later). Historian John Miller writes that James’s “main concern was to secure religious liberty and toleration for Catholics. Any ‘absolutist’ methods . . . were essentially means to that end.” James was very happy to wrest customary power from Parliament and concentrate it under the crown.
The king’s alliance with Nonconformists, then, was a strategic choice to further his goal of appointing Catholics to high office in the military and the government, and his words in favor of liberty of conscience were not entirely sincere. His purported toleration, however, is the main point of Leary’s piece, so it deserves not to be dismissed so quickly. Britain of course has a checkered history with anti-Catholic discrimination — the Test Act was not fully repealed until 1829, and Catholics were essentially denied the franchise in parts of the U.K. well into the 20th century. It would have been more just if the Act had been repealed, although it should be noted that Catholics enjoyed freedom of worship in England throughout the period, and that the Act was so weakly enforced that its dissolution in 1829 was entirely uncontroversial.
James also had no compunction about crushing religious dissenters in his other kingdoms; he continued his brother’s repression of Scottish Covenanter Presbyterians, culminating in a period of extrajudicial killings known as “The Killing Time” that was ended only by the Glorious Revolution. From the evidence, it appears that James’s gestures toward toleration were a matter of political expediency rather than principle. This is important, because Leary’s defense of James rests in large part upon the king’s supposed liberal leanings.
What’s more, Leary’s claim that defending Parliament’s actions means “doubling down on 17th-century anti-Catholic bigotry” is a rhetorical dodge. Europe in the 17th century was riven by conflict along sectarian lines, and the Church and Catholic monarchs were taking action against Protestant dissenters throughout the continent. Three years before the Glorious Revolution, across the English Channel, Louis XIV had revoked tolerance for Protestants with the Edict of Fontainebleau, destroying churches and schools and creating a diaspora of hundreds of thousands, many of whom settled in England. They brought with them stories of torture, forced conversion, the infamous Dragonnades, and galley slavery. France, the most powerful country in Europe, was believed to have influence at the English court: Louis instructed his ambassador to “intimate to the King of England to use his authority in the restoration [rétablissement] of the Catholic religion.” And of course, Louis would later put men and arms behind this goal, launching invasions in 1689, 1691, and 1708, planning several more, plotting the assassination of William III, and resolutely recruiting and supporting Jacobites.
The Counter-Reformation was on the march. J.F. Bosher notes that “from 1590 to 1690, the Protestant part of Europe had shrunk from about a half of the land mass to about one-fifth of it, and this mainly as a result of aggression by armed Catholic forces.” Along with the horror stories of Huguenot refugees, the English were well aware of French armies’ laying waste to Protestant regions such as the Palatinate in 1674, and of the massacre, forced conversion, and mass imprisonment of Waldensians by the Duke of Savoy in 1686, egged on by Louis. Of course Protestant churches had persecuted many Catholics, but at this point in history England (and the Netherlands) had much to fear from France, and were also each far more tolerant than Catholic countries such as France and Spain. Leary makes a characteristic mistake of what is known as the “neo-Jacobite” school, by narrowly focusing on the extreme examples of anti-Catholic sentiment in England while ignoring the very real political threat the Counter-Reformation posed to the country.
And make no mistake: It was a real threat. The “French influence” can be seen in James’s acts leading up to the Revolution, which Leary ignores except for his chosen examples of the Declaration, the acts of indulgence for Catholics and Nonconformists taken through royal prerogative, and the persecution of the Seven Bishops.
James attempted to continue the project of centralizing authority under the crown that had begun with the Tudors, now along the lines of the great absolutist of that period, Louis. He began to enlarge the army in defiance of national tradition and sensibilities, using his dispensing power to appoint Catholic allies as officers, which, for what it’s worth, violated the Test Act. This was what caused James to prorogue Parliament and rule by royal decree. In addition, his secretary of state, the earl of Sunderland, began to purge the royal court of office-holders and replace them with Catholics, who made up a minuscule part of the English population but who hopefully would go along with James’s plans to expand royal authority. The Godden v. Hales precedent that Leary cites was the result of James’s dismissing judges who did not agree with him, and in 1687 he attempted to pack Parliament for the repeal of the Test Acts. He ordered the Lords-Lieutenants, his personal representatives in the counties, to deny candidates to the Commission of the Peace if they disagreed with him. Royal regulators were appointed to purge local corporations of James’s political opponents; the elections were called off when news of the Dutch invasion broke.
So Leary’s claim that James was a proto-liberal advocate for the principle of religious toleration is weak; his claim that James had no real designs on absolutism is even weaker. In the words of historian Steven Pincus, James “followed the French Sun King, Louis XIV, in trying to create a modern Catholic polity. This involved not only trying to Catholicize England . . . but also creating a modern, centralizing, and extremely bureaucratic state apparatus.” That he failed shouldn’t obscure the fact that he tried.
There is, however, an important point Leary makes, a contribution to the ongoing debate over liberalism in which both sides suffer from a romantic view of history: The great victory of the English Parliament over royal power and the passage of the Bill of Rights were bound up in bloodshed and persecution, in the suppression of England’s Catholic minority, the atrocities visited against the Irish for centuries to come, and the depredations visited on Protestants by Louis.
Discussing liberalism as the airy creation of philosophers is important; Patrick Deneen is welcome to his vitriolic condemnation of Hobbes’s “autonomous individual.” But liberalism is also deeply rooted in actual historical experience, and deeply pragmatic. The Glorious Revolution, for all the bloodshed Leary points out, laid a path out of the conflict between Parliament and the Crown, and between religions. Liberalism has messy, complicated roots because it arose organically as a way to avert violence and stop societies from tearing themselves apart. It is not, as the anti-liberals like to pretend, the imposition of abstract philosophies upon unblemished early societies. It is what happened when people first tried to stop killing one another.