European History Pt. 33 — English Enlightenment

Last time I looked at the enlightened despotism of Russia, and before that, the enlightened despotism of Austria and Prussia.

This time I’m looking specifically at England, which, as the book notes, went through the Enlightenment in its own way, with a parliament and not an enlightened despot.

The book summarizes the era after the glorious revolution of 1688 by saying “that nothing is more conservative than a successful revolution.” These words ring true to me, and indeed, the book goes on to chronicle England’s self satisfaction with its political system. There was political criticism at this time, but ironically, the volume of the criticism was more a function of the fact that England ALLOWED free speech than any deep seated animosity toward government (note, Tories as a party were largely dead. Things were ruled by the Whigs).

Reform focused on parliament, and an early move in this direction was due to John Wilkes. The courts ruled that his publisher had been jailed illegally and so he became a cause celebre and ran for the House, which refused to seat him. Once elected, he put forth numerous bills, none of which past for more than 50 years.

Around the time of the French Revolution, the reform movement gathered force again, but it’s success would be deferred again by satisfaction at England’s constitutional system, and patriotism at once again fighting the French.

The book makes an interesting comparison, which is that at the time of the American Revolution, it was all about centralization. France tried to tax its provinces, Austria repressed its member kingdoms to gain military efficiency, and England’s revoked the charter of Massachusetts and squabbled with Virginia and New York. In fact, I have now heard many historians say that the Americans, in finding British rule to be odious, were actually being pretty big babies. They had it good and a good of anti-crown paranoia substituted for a more sober look at their relationship to the crown, especially since the parliament was really sovereign at this time, not King George III. Not to denigrate the American revolution. It’s probably good that they were willing to rebel at what might be considered somewhat minor injustices. Injustice must not stand, even minor ones.

Its also interesting to note that England turned some repressive energies toward the Scottish highlands at this time, because the clans there had supported France in 1745 (they were jacobites hoping to return James III “the pretender” to the throne). As a result, Scots were forbidden to wear kilts and play bagpipes (DID NOT KNOW THAT!)

Ireland is the same story as always. Repression. In fact Ireland rose in revolt during the French Revolution and the revolution was put down.



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