Monday, June 7, 2010

Constitutional Government And The Rule Of Law: Macaulay's History of England

Constitutional government and the rule of law is the keystone of the great arch that supports all the free  political, social and intellectual institutions of modernity that we now take for granted. It took a hundred years to put that keystone in place. It was an epic struggle. Like the French Revolution, a hundred years later, it could easily have taken a bad turn and gone the wrong way. Anyone interested in modernity should read the story of the English revolution that Thomas Macaulay tells with verve, brilliance and intellectual power in his history of England in the 17th century (published in 1848) which ends with the virtual abdication, in 1688, of the last of the Stuart kings, and his replacement by William, Prince of Orange and his wife Mary, the daughter of James II. It is a riveting and thrilling story, like a great historical novel except that it is not fiction but truth told by one of the finest masters of English prose.

Macaulay's History of England has been dismissed by some as merely a smug Whiggish interpretation of history. I have yet to see a Tory interpretation that bears comparison with Macaulay's work, which is always honest and never simple minded. I quote briefly from the first chapter:

I shall recount the errors which, in a few months, alienated a loyal gentry and priesthood from the House of Stuart. I shall trace the course of that revolution which terminated the long struggle between our sovereigns and their parliaments, and bound up together the rights of the people and the title of [a new] reigning dynasty. . . how under that settlement the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known . . . . Nor will it be less my duty faithfully to record disasters mingled with triumphs, and great national crimes and follies far more humiliating than any disaster. It will be seen that the system which effectually secured our liberties against the encroachments of kingly power gave birth to a new class of abuses from which absolute monarchies are exempt. It will be seen that in consequence partly of unwise interference, and partly of unwise neglect, the increase of wealth and the extension of trade produced, together with immense good, some evils from which poor and rude societies are free. It will be seen how, in two important dependencies of the crown, wrong was followed by just retribution; how imprudence and obstinacy broke the ties that bound the North American colonies to the parent state; how Ireland, cursed by the domination of race over race, and of religion over religion, remained indeed a member of the empire, but a withered and distorted member, adding no strength to the body politic, and reproachfully pointed at by all who feared and envied the greatness of England.

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