"BIRTHERS," THE ULTRA-RIGHT AND LIBERTARIANS NEED THIS HISTORY LESSON
"Birthers" and ultra-right politicians and voters do more than imitate the zany, malicious rumors about a "suppositious prince" that helped force England's King James from the throne in 1688. Their vile and obstinate rumor-mongering about President Obama of course aim at his legitimacy since they are unable to abide the resounding victory he won in 2008, nor his persistent popularity despite Congressional bickering and the slurs of his opposition.
In addition to their imitation of the Protestant malcontents who claimed the newborn heir to King James II was really smuggled into the royal birthing chamber in a bedwarming pan, and thus illegitimate, the outraged right has turned their backs on the basic lessons about politics, freedom, good government, modern government finance, and economics that also date back to England after the King abdicated.
These are lessons that the Founding fathers took to heart, as we shall see. They are lessons the ultra-right and Libertarians ardently need to study before making their foolish demands for a balanced budget, return to a confederation rather than strong federal system, and elimination of paper currency in favor of "hard money" in gold or silver. Their demands threaten the nation and come very close to treason.
The main source for the following information is Craig Rose's excellent, but obscure, text, England in the 1690's. Other sources are cited as necessary.
With the "Glorious Revolution," as the abdication of James II and ascent of William and Mary is known in England, the idea of a Constitutional monarchy was firmly established in the English system. To that time, although the Magna Charta had led to the Houses of Parliament and guaranteed the rights of certain Englishmen, there had always been a tension between the Crown and people.
The Crown tended toward absolutism - it had cost Charles I his head, for example - and brought considerable tension into the court of Charles II, who kept an uneasy peace with Parliament. James II, who took the example of absolute ruler Louis XIV to heart, barely escaped to France whole because of his insistence upon absolute rule.
During this period Thomas Hobbes' The Leviathan - an apt name in all cases for the massive book - undertook to defend the "divine right of kings" and an absolute monarchy. In contrast, John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Civil Government, which averred legitimacy of the ruler is conferred by the consent of the governed. Locke's work was published after the Glorious Revolution, but apparently written beforehand as a riposte to defenders of absolute monarchy.
The combination of a new and firm foundation for Constitutional monarchy and the "liberal" principles Locke set forth defined basic British political philosophy from that time to the present.
Although the Whig and Tory political movements had begun during the reign of Charles II, after William and Mary the two emerging political parties solidified. Their origins were largely political-religious - the Tory Party sought to defend the privileges and authority of the Established Church, that is, the Anglican denomination, while the Whigs sought to defend a wider range of religious freedom for other "dissenters," Protestant sects such as the Puritans, Presbyterians and Quakers.
When William and Mary took the crown, they found themselves in dire need of influential allies. While nominally head of the Established Church, William was chary of dabbling in the politics of religion in the country. He needed to appoint advisors and ministers to help in his work, and while many influential Dutchmen became highly-place new noble families of the land, so also were many influential English leaders called upon.
William was at all times anxious for the security of his throne. He originally leaned toward the Tories, but as conflict over church and state distracted from governance, William found he needed the Whigs in his administration. Thus was born the role of leading politicians and parties in the operation of the British Government - although the concept of the Prime Minister did not arrive until more than a century later.
William was also more interested in the War of the League of Augsburg - also called the Nine Years' War, among other appellations - than in "reforming" English government. He needed domestic peace and prosperity to fund his naval and Continental campaigns, as well as the votes in Parliament to provide the funds.
As well, William's England needed a more modern concept of fiscal management. Living on current receipts, or loans against current receipts, was the method employed then by most nations, most certainly France and Spain, England's greatest rivals. War disrupted trade and limited available revenues from excise taxes and other public receipts that trade produced.
Had James II and his "suppositious prince" stayed on the throne, it is unlikely that England would have laid the foundation of the advanced financial system that ultimately enabled a later Great Britain to acquire a global empire. War would have beggared the country by the early 1700's. In 1692, the Royal Navy was one million pounds in arrears to its suppliers of food, drink, and all other provisions, as well as to its sailors and officers. In 1694, a national lottery raised a million pounds to help finance the war effort. (Sources: Edward B. Powley, The Naval Side of King William's War, and the Calendar of State Papers, 1693-94)
England, at that time a follower along with most other nations, of an economic policy called "monetarism," relied on specie (hard money in gold or silver) to pay its way. When the supply of coin ran low, hardship followed. It was, essentially, a "balanced budget" economic policy, modified a bit by borrowing, at often ruinous interest rates, or by the simple act of delaying payments on outstanding bills.
That was unfortunately also very costly - not only were victuallers at times ruined, and soldiers' or seamen’s families starved, but also what provisions the government could buy were offered at exceptionally high prices, and at times the unpaid men at dockyards or on ships and in regiments simply refused to do anything.
In the early 1690's, to manage a bit better on the short rations of money, the Royal navy began issuing interest-bearing notes that matured in a set period of time to pay some of its expenses of obtain loans. This was a kind of "savings bond" that could be traded on the open market, often at a discount, that was guaranteed by the government. It was the first step in creating a "national debt" that might be managed more efficiently and predictably - and it took the Navy, and later the country, off one main leg of monetarism, operating the nation out of current receipts.
In 1694, the Bank of England was founded. It was created to assume the national debt, basically becoming the nation's banker, and expand the means of financing the government. Among its earliest deeds was to issue banknotes, paper currency, to use instead of hard money. This action sawed away at another prop of monetarism, absolute use of hard money.
Bank notes were a development of a pre-existing kind of "checking account." Certainly from the time of Elizabeth I, and possibly earlier (see Glyn and Roy Davies, History of Money from Ancient Times to the Present Day, http://projects.exeter.ac.uk/RDavies/arian/llyfr.html) goldsmiths offered an ad-hoc banking service to customers, storing gold or silver in all forms, as well as gems and jewelry, in their vaults, They issued certificates to the owners which could be traded on the marketplace for good, service, or cash. "Bills of exchange" at guaranteed value were often used to pay private and public debts, and then redeemed by specie.
The Bank of England's bank notes were an extension of the concepts of goldsmiths' certificates and bills of exchange. But they represented a loan against the national treasury, much as the "greenbacks" issued by the Union during the American Civil War were essentially a loan to the government. In this fashion, the British national debt grew, making possible the financing of government and operations of the military in war - and the subsidies given in specie by Britain to shore up allies in the Continental conflict.
By the early 1700's, when William was dead (Mary was taken by smallpox in 1694) and Queen Anne held the throne, both the institution of political parties, the role of each party's leadership in principal ministries of the state, and the role of the national debt as a revolving credit to fund the government were filmy in place. With the Act of Union of 1707, the nation of Great Britain was created. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain no longer adhered to monetarism, but was a proto-Capitalist state, while Spain was nearly broke and France supported herself by looting conquered nations.
The political implications of the 1690's were immense but required a full century of war to play out. Near the end of the century, the American Revolution led to formation of a republic based not only on the philosophy of Locke and the later works of Montesquieu but also on some of the institutions of the mother country. Not a few of the new American institutions, however, were created as a direct result of what Great Britain taught her erstwhile colonists not to do.
Foremost among the measures the newly-independent Americans took when replacing its original, dysfunctional confederacy with a federal republic under the Constitution was the Bill of Rights. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution each were based on very bad experiences suffered as British subjects - from ensuring a wholly secular government entirely divorced from any connection with any religion for any reason, to limiting the government's power.
Unfortunately, at this remove from the founding of the United States, many ultra-right politicians and voters do not remember the lessons of England in the 1690's. They advocate a return to a confederacy rather than a federalist system, and to a form of "monetarism" based on a balanced budget and use of hard money. They would utterly cripple the country, create widespread poverty and suffering, and ultimately dissolve the United States.
Americans indeed need to remember the specific lessons first taught in an England under William and Mary - following the Glorious Revolution. It might be said they were originally cooked up in rumors of a bedwarming pan.