Mark Twain famously quipped, “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” He might have been talking about the government shutdown in Washington this month.
The shutdown wasn’t a first. In fact, it isn’t even an American invention. It was first done in England in 1641. The result was the English Civil War. The king lost that war and got his head cut off in the bargain. Those events would directly affect the founding of America.
As Twain’s comment intimates, the parallels between then and now are not exact, but they are close enough to pique our interest. Here’s what happened.
Charles I of the Stuart family came to the throne in 1625. He immediately got himself into trouble with religion, politics and finances — a toxic brew if ever there was one. The religious and political issues might have been manageable by themselves, but when finances were thrown in the whole thing exploded.
The religious issue was that Charles pushed a top-down, authoritarian version of Anglicanism, the branch of Protestantism created by Henry VIII when he broke with Rome in 1535. But Parliament favored a more radical, bottoms-up version of Protestantism that came from John Calvin: Puritanism.
The Puritans suspected that Charles was really a closet Catholic (shades of Obama being a secret Muslim!). His Anglicanism was certainly closer to Catholicism than it was to Puritanism. And it didn’t help his case that he married a Catholic princess from France, the Bourbon Henrietta Maria. But religion alone isn’t what did Charles in.
The second conflict was political. It had to do with the roles of the monarchy and the Parliament. Historically, the king called the Parliament when he wanted advice or needed to raise money. When he was done with them he dismissed them. But Parliament wanted a bigger say in running the government, and more respect. (Sound familiar?)
Parliament impeached Francis Bacon, one of Charles’ ministers. It was a novel assertion of power. Before long, it claimed the right to approve the appointment of all ministers. Next it declared that it would meet every three years, with or without the approval of the king, and that it couldn’t be dismissed except by its own decision. These were becoming radical encroachments on the King’s purview. Still, they weren’t fatal, yet.
Where things finally broke down was in the realm of finances, which harkens to the conflict today. Back then they didn’t have as well-developed a concept of the “state” as we do now. It was expected that the royal family should provide the bulk of the funds needed to run the government. Unfortunately, Charles’ family didn’t have very much money, so he had to keep going to Parliament with his hand out.
But Parliament despised Charles, both for his religion and his imperious political attitude. He had gone to war with Scotland in 1639 without asking permission from Parliament, the first time that had been done since 1323. (Obama’s decision not to attack Syria without the permission of Congress was almost certainly made in consideration of this precedent.)