Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"Our First Revolution" by Michael Barone

The antecedents to the American Revolution of 1776 are recounted by Michael Barone in a new book which explains what I first discovered while staying with a Dutch diplomat in The Hague back in the '70's---how the Dutch invaded and conquered England in 1688.

Now you're probably going to react the way I did when my Dutch historian friend told me what all Dutch schoolkids are taught, namely that Holland conquered England with 21,000 sailors and was aided by Whig aristocrats trying to head off King James II from establishing a Sun King-style absolute monarchy. Had this "invasion" failed, the Brits might be celebrating it with bonfires instead of Guy Fawkes Day---because Catholicism might have been restored and the Protestants brought to heel instead of vice-versa.

In reality, the "Glorious Revoluton" was assisted by the providential "Protestant Wind" which---unlike the Spanish Armada---aided the invaders with soft breezes from the East in the usually stormy November North Sea. And the subsequent British/Dutch constitutional monarchy instilled what Barone describes as:
"changes in English law, governance and politics that turned out to be major advances for representative government, guaranteeing liberties, global capitalism, and a foreign policy of opposing hegemonic powers."

And English mercantile activity ultimately secured its overseas possessions with economic underpinnings that would make its American colonies prosperous enough to rebel when English Tory governments tried to extend a tax regime on what were the richest per capita thriving outposts---albeit aided by slave plantations---on the planet at the time.

Barone continues along the lines of the excellent scholarship and readability of Kevin Philips The Cousins War which recounted how the English Civil War emerging out of Cromwell's East Anglia---the home of the Puritans [who also set sail for the New World out of prosperous and tolerant Holland]---eerily presaged the American Civil War over two centuries later. Another interesting book along these lines is Albion's Seed.

And of course, one small lesson from these books is that the winner gets to name the wars or incidents of historical importance---the "Glorious Revolution" is not "The Gunpoweder Plot Part II" nor is the "Civil War" commonly called "The War Between the States."

Of course, the overarching lesson might also be that bottom-up local freedoms trump top-down autocracies. Or as Australian author Clive James quoted some sage: "Democracy was invented by people who were smart enough to realize that they didn't know it all."

Words we should always reflect upon as a another Memorial Day fades into history.

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