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.)
In 1641, Irish Catholics started slaughtering Protestant Englishmen in Ireland. Charles asked Parliament for the funds to raise an army to suppress the uprising. Parliament refused. Things had gotten so bad between them that Parliament wasn’t sure that once the revolt was over Charles wouldn’t use the army on them!
Order began to crumble everywhere. Pamphleteers harangued Charles mercilessly. Riots broke out in the city of London. Denuded of power for want of money, Charles left London and moved his house to Oxford. Thus began the English Civil War.
The war raged off and on for six years. In “Leviathan,” Hobbes called it “a war of all against all.” It pitted court against country, Anglicans against Puritans, aristocrats against gentry. Charles lost the war and then his head in 1649. (Grand Bargains weren’t as genteel back then.)
It was the first time in more than 1,000 years that a sitting king had been executed by his own subjects. Parliament, rather than being called at the whim of the king as it was only 20 years before, had now become the king-maker!
Parliament would depose Charles’ son, James II, in 1688 — the “Glorious Revolution.” It invited the Protestant William and his wife, Mary, to come from Holland, but only if they would accept Parliament as a co-equal branch of government. They accepted. This foretold the design of the U.S. Constitution, written a century later by the former Englishman James Madison.
It’s unlikely anybody is going to get their head cut off over the latest shutdown. But it’s good to remember the power that comes with control of the purse, especially in the hands of a hostile legislature. The challenge for that power is still being played out today.