The British Revolution

For many generations to come the Revolution of 1688-9 was spoken of…as ‘the Glorious Revolution’. Its glory did not consist in any deed of arms, in any signal acts of heroism on the part of Englishmen, nor in the fact that a whole nation proved itself stronger than one foolish King. There was indeed a certain ignominy in the fact that a foreign fleet and army, however friendly and however welcome, had been required to enable Englishmen to recover the liberties they had muddled away in their frantic faction feuds. The true ‘glory’ of the British Revolution lay in the fact that it was bloodless, that there was no civil war, no massacre, no proscription, and above all that a settlement by consent was reached of the religious and political differences that had so long and so fiercely divided men and parties.

During William of Orange’s reign the National Debt was commenced, the Bank of England established, the modern system of finance introduced, ministerial responsibility recognised, the standing army transferred to the control of parliament, the liberty of the press secured and the British constitution established on a firm basis. The removal of James from the throne of his kingdom had received the approval of many of the radical English philosophers of the day, some of whom had returned from exile as participants in, or in the wake of, the Revolution.

Among these radicals it was John Locke whose ideas provided the best theoretical justification for the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government sought to establish the basis for legitimate government. He first set out to discredit the argument that a king’s power was divine and not limited by human law, insisting that, on the contrary, the Bible prescribed no particular form of government, this could only be determined by the people themselves. Locke went further and claimed that “it is lawful for the people… to resist their king” when the monarch put his private interests above the interests of the community as a whole. “I say using force upon the people, without authority and contrary to the trust put in him that does so, is a state of war with the people, who have a right to reinstate their legislative in the exercise of their power.”

Not only was Locke’s thinking important in its European context – the British Revolution had a profound impact on French liberalism – it was an important influence upon the radicals who made the American Revolution of 1776; indeed, his Two Treatises of Government has been called the “textbook of the American Revolution”.

One direct influence on the radical thinking that was now being formulated in the ‘New World’ was the work of the great Ulster philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, son of an Armagh Presbyterian minister, and who was born probably at Drumalig, Saintfield, County Down in 1694. He studied for the church at Glasgow (1710-1716) but then started a private academy in Dublin where he was particularly associated with the advanced Presbyterian libertarians, Thomas Drennan, William Bruce and Samuel Haliday. In 1729 he was appointed professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, where he died in 1746. His most important work is A Sense of Moral Philosophy (with a Life, 1755).

Hutcheson was quite explicit about the right of resistance by the people in the event of a betrayal of trust by a government. He expounded the doctrine of religious toleration and he deeply admired the tradition of armed militias for the protection of civil liberties. The principles he espoused found their way via American revolutionary thinkers into the Declaration of Independence and are embodied in the American Constitution. Hutcheson’s influence on Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others is explored in M. White’s Philosophy of the American Revolution and G. Wills’ Inventing America. In fact, Wills concluded that Hutcheson was a pioneer of the ‘Common Sense’ school of philosophy, influenced by Locke; his ethical system is a development of Shaftsbury’s ‘Moral Sense’ ethics, in which moral distinctions are in a sense intuited, rather than arrived at by reasoning.

The voice of popular democracy had also been making itself heard with increasing articulateness. The radical Leveller movement felt that, because the power of parliament was ultimately derived from the people, it was the people therefore who were sovereign – parliament only possessed a purely delegated authority. Another group, the Diggers, believed that it was private property, particularly land ownership, which was at the root of all social evil and inequality, and their main spokesman, Gerrard Winstanley, depicted the rule of kings as being no different from that of thieves.

In 1649, forty years before the poor of Ireland would spill their blood for the sake of two competing kings, their more radical counterparts in England were attempting to seize and cultivate common land, in order that they could distribute the produce among the ordinary people. Such radical ideas, and the profound changes they inaugurated, were not, of course, simply a reaction to uniquely English events, but reflected fundamental social, economic and political changes occurring within European society in general. Increasingly, political struggles within society became more closely identified with the particular social and economic interests of different groups, even to the extent of overriding traditional allegiances.

For example, in America the ‘Scotch-Irish’, largely Ulster Presbyterian in origin, threw themselves wholeheartedly into the republican camp – an ironic situation when viewed from today’s perspective – believing that an independent American Republic was eminently more desirable for their social and economic well-being than continued control and interference by Britain. However, the growing economic and political power of these new republicans proved threatening to other sections of American society, who stayed decidedly Loyalist, including many Catholic Jacobites from the Highlands of Scotland, who had fought the House of Hanover in the 1745 rebellion and remembered the defeat of 1715, but who became staunch Loyalists because of the generous treatment they received in America from their former adversaries. Various ‘cultural minorities’, fearful of an increase in the power of the majority, often sought British help or protection – New Rochelle, for example, the only place where the French Calvinists still spoke French, was an area of substantial Huguenot Loyalism.

Nor were America’s Black population convinced that an alliance with radical republicans was really to their advantage. Most of the Black community were “strongly attached to the British”, according to one contemporary Loyalist source. Certainly there was a widespread fear of Black people among the newly consolidating American ‘establishment’, partly an extension of the perennial dread of slave revolt, and intensified by the mass desertion of slaves in response to a wholesale British offer of freedom.

Indeed, a strong disapproval of Black slavery was the most glaring omission from the Declaration of Independence. Matthew T Mellon, in his study of the racial attitudes of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’, Early American Views on Negro Slavery, concluded that while the leading men at the time of the Revolution were all concerned with how to abolish the slave trade, economic pressures and moral indifference prevented them form energetically pursuing its abolition.

As the American Revolution gained momentum, the Indian Peoples made some attempt at neutrality, but generally they favoured the British Government. They had no enthusiasm for the westward-pushing, uncontrollable colonial settlers who coveted their lands, and believed that the British, rather than the Americans, would be the most likely to seek restraints over this movement. Nothing highlights this allegiance better than the careers of the prominent ‘Loyalists’ who emerged from among the Mohawk people, such as John Deserontyon, Aaron Hill and Joseph Brant, who commanded the Iroquois nations with great skill on the British side during the Revolutionary War. Even today Chief Earl Hill of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation still professes that his people “were proud of their status and designation as United Empire Loyalists”.

A delegation from the Mohawk nation came to Ulster in 1990 to attend the tercentenary celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne. During their visit they were no doubt made aware of the divisions which still run deep within Irish society as a consequence of that battle. This division must have seemed quite unnecessary to them, for in their own communities – in which Orange Lodges sit alongside self-help workshops – Protestants and Catholics are fully integrated and work together as Mohawks. It is surely high time that the communities in Ulster began that same process of integration, so that a new generation might finally escape the burden which our past history has for too long imposed upon us.

In January 1987 Ulster Loyalists presented a paper for discussion, named Common Sense in honour of Francis Hutcheson. This confirmed the commitment of the Ulster Defence Association to a devolved legislative government for Northern Ireland with an agreed written constitution, and suggested, given the suspension of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a co-operative democratic political structure based on consensus government, proportional representation and shared responsibility. In the words of the preamble, “It is our firm conviction that the vast majority of both religious communities long for peace, reconciliation and the chance to create a better future for their children. But longing is not enough; there must be a mechanism created to harness love, generosity, courage and integrity of Ulster people in both religious communities and direct its great power towards the light of a new beginning”.

Code: Picts

Ed: In FRANCE AND AMERICA – AND IRELAND (Wednesday, March 1. 2006) I wrote –

A recent book explores another aspect of Ireland’s contribution to America. It is WHITE SAVAGE: WILLIAM JOHNSON AND THE INVENTION OF AMERICA, by Fintan O’Toole, Faber & Faber, 2005. See-

FINTAN O’TOOLE is a leading Irish intellectual who writes for THE IRISH TIMES. O’Toole spoke about this book last September at the annual literary festival in Bangor.

William Johnson (1714-63) was an extremely important person in the history of America, who remains strangely little known. His was the main contribution in ensuring that the vast continent became English- rather than French-speaking.

In the mid-1700s France and England were vying for control of America. Their strategic positions were almost equal. France had explored the river systems of the St Lawrence and the Mississippi, founding ports at the entrances to these vast rivers and forts along their courses. The English-speaking colonies were strung out along the Atlantic coast, with a greater population than the French colonies, but controlling a smaller area.

The key lay in the Upper Hudson Valley. If the French were to control this, then they could advance down the Hudson to the Atlantic, cutting the English colonies in two. If the English were to control the Upper Hudson, then they, too, could threaten to cut the line of communication between the St Lawrence and the Mississippi systems. Powerful Indian tribes – the Six Nations – controlled the Upper Hudson, and the question was, who could gain the alliance of the Indian tribes?

In fact, both England and France gained the support of Indian tribes at various times, tribes which would merrily scalp each other and the palefaces of the enemy European nation. But William Johnson won the support of the Six Nations at the critical moment, with the result that Wolfe took Quebec and America fell to the English.

Johnson became a chief of the Iroquois, and lived among them on the Hudson. He played a important part in their rituals, and indeed preserved their memory for posterity. He went native quite literally. At the same time, Johnson retained his Irish links and even shipped out an Irish harper to the American wilderness to play for his guests in his mansion.

Johnson would have loathed the Ulster Presbyterians, who were then entering America in droves. Johnson came from an entirely different Irish tradition, that of the sunken Catholic Gaelic gentry, from County Meath, north of Dublin. While the Scotch-Irish were democratic, Johnson’s instincts were aristocratic, and Johnson sought positive relationships with the Indians, rather than their extermination.

Brought up as a Catholic, Johnson adopted the Established Protestant church, and then sought a position under a relation who had likewise become a Protestant and who had influence and patronage to offer in America . Johnson’s Christianity, of any sort, must have been very thin, judging by the number of offspring that he fathered by various wives– both white and Indian.

Johnson maintained an amazing part Indian, part British, part Irish identity. A son inherited his leadership of the Iroquois and the Six Nations, but the son held to the Loyalist, pro-British cause in the Revolutionary War, leading to utter disaster for the Indians. Most had to flee to Canada at its end. And so the Americans forgot about the debt they owe to Johnson.

Last September O’Toole announced that this book is the first of a trilogy, exploring American myths and the part that Irish people have played in their creation. The first myth is ‘The Indian’ (William Johnson), the second is ‘The White Race’ (Margaret Mitchell, author of GONE WITH THE WIND), and the final one will be ‘The Outlaw’ (William ‘Billy the Kid’ Bonney). The books will appear at yearly intervals.

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Scotch-Irish, Saturday, March 3. 2007

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