Some reflections on a mostly forgotten 5 November and its relationship to the recent American election.

This blog post was originally intended as a serious-ish discussion of aspects of British and American constitutionalism that help explain some aspects of the current US Presidential election, aspects deriving from the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The tenuous-ish link to November 5 has to do with William of Orange landing at Torbay on that day, 324 years ago. As is my way, though, I got diverted for several hundred words into a catastrophically meandering preamble replete with the usual desperate, attention-seeking lengthy humorous asides, or non-humorous asides, depending on your point of view, age, etc. So, if you want to skip all that and get to the serious bit, scroll down until you see the words, in bold, This is the serious bit.


As children, my fellow semi-grown shitwits and I were often told by our teachers and our televisions to “remember, remember the fifth of November.”  Sometimes these authorities invoked this phrase as parts of health and safety lectures about not holding lit fireworks and thereby ending up with a blackened lump of burning bone and smouldering skin where your hand used to be, although even back then I thought that wouldn’t be such a bad thing in some cases, for the greater good of the human race, in Darwinian terms. This may be harsh, but it is an important consideration.  Imagine if lizards made an evolutionary comeback. The two-legged stand-up ones (who were always the dangerous ones, compared to those fat, four-legged, leaf-eating dumbosaurs) would have major evolutionary advantages over us, accustomed as they would already be to performing daily tasks with naturally short arms and stumpy little paws. That’s where namby-pamby health and safety will get us once global warming returns us to the most elemental struggle for survival—defeated and indeed most likely eaten by dinosaurs.

Anyway, I digress.  We were also taught that the fifth of November is about Guy Fawkes’s attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. “Remember, remember the fifth of November” comes from the following, or some variant of it:

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch….

Fair enough, an important historical moment to be sure, and it should be remembered.  But it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be and often isn’t remembered to the exclusion of other fifths of November.  We’ve already seen that our future Giant Lizard Kings will remember the fifth of November as a crucial factor in their eventual ascendance over us. But there are other fifths of November to remember too. One that used to be universally remembered in the Anglo-dominated world is the fifth of November 1688, the day that William of Orange landed with his forces at Torbay, in Devon, on his way to overthrow James II and claim the throne for himself as King William III and his wife as Queen Mary II.

Now this event, the Glorious Revolution as it came to be called, can, of course, be remembered in different ways for different things. The English might remember it for its restoration of Parliamentary and other liberties from the prerogative-grabbing mitts of William’s father-in-law James, the father of Mary, a legacy perhaps best encapsulated in the Declaration and then the Bill of Rights of 1689. It often isn’t remembered this way, however, or indeed at all, as I pointed out somewhat shirtily in a previous post about a radio programme positing that Britain should perhaps adopt a Bill of Rights, perhaps based on the US one (we already have one, from 1689, and the US one is partly based on it):

Alternatively, and equally validly, English and Welsh Catholics might remember the fifth of November 1688 and what followed it as the beginning of a century and a half of political and economic disfranchisement and social segregation. The Scottish might and perhaps more often do remember it as a moment in the aggrandisement of Parliamentary authority that led to the kind of imperialism that saw their parliament abolished in 1707, not to be restored until almost three centuries later. The Irish might and certainly far more often do remember it for James’s final defeat by William at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, and what followed—another moment in the on-going oppression of the Irish and of Catholics. Patriotic English people used to remember it this way too, only in a rather more celebratory way, and indeed the fifth of November often used to be called Pope’s Day, and people would burn effigies of the pontiff rather than of Guy Fawkes. The Protestant Irish still see it in something like these terms, and to this day they march about in traditional seventeenth-century costumes, including bowler hats of the exact same kind that King William himself used to wear.

Whatever the case, for all the Glorious Revolution’s ambiguities as an event, I think it’s a shame that it isn’t as well remembered as a moment in the history of liberty as well as other things as it might be. It certainly used to be. When the American lawyer and legislator John Dickinson wrote his famous (and deviously misnamed) Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, objecting to British taxes in the form of the 1767 Townshend Duties, and to Parliamentary presumption of an entitlement to rule over the American colonies, as expressed in those taxes and in the Declaratory Act of the previous year that proclaimed Parliament’s right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever,” he published the first of the letters on the fifth of November. And everyone knew what that represented—Dickinson was performing a symbolic insurgency in favour of liberty analogous to the invasion of England by William of Orange, the cheeky monkey.

This is the serious bit.

[Fellow historians and, for that matter, political scientists: please see * below for a quite possibly unnecessary and vainglorious note on intellectual property.]


So, anyway, why, given all the different ways to remember the fifth of November, am I writing about it here today? It’s because, as it happens, this year, the fifth of November falls on the day before the day of the US Presidential election. What possible bearing can the fifth of November 1688 have on the 2012 contest for the occupancy of the most powerful address on earth, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House? Well, quite a lot, actually, and here’s why.

As many historians of colonial America have said, in some ways the Glorious Revolution in the colonies was similar to the one in England. Yet in some crucial respects, its settlement worked out very differently on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. In the run-up to 1688, colonists felt that their rights as “freeborn Englishmen” were being violated by James II or his minions much as Englishmen back home felt theirs were. The need for actual revolutions in most colonies, though, was obviated when colonial governors declared allegiance to Parliament and to William and Mary once news reached America of James’s overthrow. Two of the three exceptions prove the rule. In the colonies of Massachusetts and New York, local revolutions overthrew Governor Edmund Andros in Boston and Lieutenant-Governor Francis Nicholson in New York city, who were agents of James II’s direct rule of the Dominion of New England. When that that regime collapsed in those places, it also collapsed in the other Dominion colonies of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Plymouth, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Things were slightly more complicated in Maryland, a proprietary colony owned by the Lords Baltimore, the Calverts, who were Catholics, bringing a religious dimension to their overthrow in early 1689 by a Protestant Association, making that local revolution even more resonant of events back in England. (The Calverts got their proprietary back when Benedict Leonard Calvert, the fourth Baron Baltimore, converted to Anglicanism in 1715.)

As the above indicates, there were local contingencies that made the Glorious Revolution, or revolutions, in America sometimes somewhat different from what transpired in England, but it’s how the Glorious Revolution’s settlement panned out over the long term that really explains some of the differences in British and American politics since, including the nature of the executive arms of government and the relationships of executives to legislatures on this side of the Atlantic and that.

In England, desperate as politicians were to be rid of the Papist tyrant James, as they saw him, and to restore what they saw as England’s ancient constitution, they were also desperate to avoid falling back into the darks days of the 1640s, back into civil war in which one-in-ten of the population died, and into God-only-knew what kind of cosmic retribution another regicide might invite. Men as diverse as radical Whig believers in popular sovereignty, moderate Whig and Tory believers in Parliamentary sovereignty, and High Tory believers in the Divine Right of Kings therefore worked together on a compromise that all could peaceably live with. They thus agreed that James had “abdicated” rather than been forcibly overthrown. That allowed them to believe that the Declaration and Bill of Rights represented the work of the people, or of Parliament, or of God, as ideological preference directed. Eventually, they could all believe in the “principle of co-ordination” whereby sovereignty, whether it originated in the people, Parliament, or the crown, in practical terms worked through the operations of the crown-in-parliament. By the 1720s, the time of the premiership of Robert Walpole, the British parliamentary system worked much as it does today. The leader of the majority party in the House of Commons becomes the King’s or Queen’s First or Prime Minister, the head of an executive that in the nature of the system controls the majority in the legislature. (Or, in the event of a hung Parliament, the leader of the party with the largest minority can form a coalition with the leader and members of a third party to form a working majority in the House of Commons, especially if members of the third party are a sufficiently unprincipled bunch of shit-weasels who, for the sake of experiencing chimerical power, are willing to betray every principle they promised during the foregoing election to uphold.)


In America, however, or, rather, in the various Americas, it didn’t turn out this way at all. Royal governors were just that: royal governors who derived their authority from the imperial centre, whether formally from the Privy Council and thus the crown, or in practice from government ministries, or indeed from the complicated but co-ordinated operations of the crown-in-parliament. Governors could not co-ordinate with provincial legislatures in the way the crown could and did with Parliament in London, as that would have put them at odds with their metropolitan masters. Even when they did what local legislative assemblies told them to do, as indeed many had little choice but to do, they could not institutionalise that kind of executive-legislative co-ordination, and ended up politically ineffective from an imperial-interest point of view. When they were active, the implementation of imperial-executive will necessitated such actions as proroguing and even dissolving colonial legislative assemblies, vetoing their legislation, and exercising other traditional executive actions such as creating courts and dismissing politically disagreeable judges—the kinds of prerogative powers that were either explicitly outlawed by the Bill of Rights or else obviated by the operations of co-ordination within England (or, after the 1707 Act of Union, Britain). It was this kind of executive prerogative that Parliament adopted towards the colonies from the passing of the Sugar Act in 1764, ultimately leading to American independence in 1776, which the British were forced to recognise in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

The Americans thus never developed the tradition of co-ordination that defines the British system of parliamentary democracy. They thus to this day retain a degree of separated rather than mixed powers in their constitution. Thus it is that the American President is elected every four years singly and separately from members of Congress who are elected every two years in the case of Congressmen and Congresswomen (members of the House of Representatives) and every six years in the case of Senators. Thus it is that there can be and often is a President of one political party and either a House of Representative or a Senate or indeed a whole Congress dominated by another. Far from controlling the legislature, as is inherently the case in the British system, the American executive often finds himself the opposition to it.

It’s often said that the US constitution is new, or at least much newer than the ancient constitution of Great Britain. I’d contend that at least in some respects the opposite is the case. The modern British constitution is very much the product of 1688-89, a 1688-89 that never happened in America. The US Constitution reflects (and so do all the state constitutions with their independent governors) an older oppositionism between executive and legislature that pre-dates the principle of co-ordination that emerged from the Glorious Revolution in England, and that indeed was such a divisive feature of the English civil war era and in fact much further back into the English past. And what’s true of American political constitutionalism may also consequently be true of American political culture. If the moderation of modern British politics is a product of the co-ordinated nature of the British parliamentary system (as opposed to being somehow inherent in British character, as some ridiculous people would have you believe), then perhaps the sometimes “paranoid style” of American politics (as it has been termed by American political historians) is a product of an inherited roundhead tradition of legislative opposition to the ever-present danger of tyranny that they believe executive power inherently represents.

So, what I’m saying is, if you think American politics is a bit weird and wacky, remember, remember the fifth of November (1688).

[* Academic friends: I'm intending to develop and publish these ideas one day, so if for any reason you are ducky enough consider them worthy of mention, then I'd appreciate citation. You can cite the following (and hopefully soon will be able to cite journal articles and eventually a book). Ta. The following also contains citations etc for the ideas above. ‘From Glorious Revolution to American Revolution: Constitutionalism and Political Culture in the Atlantic World, 1689-1789’, Conference Proceedings, ‘From Colonies into Republics in an Atlantic World: North America and the Caribbean in a Revolutionary Age’, University Paris 7 – Denis Diderot, December, 2006:


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