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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

New Rare Acquisitions: The Glorious Revolution

The Riesenfeld Center has recently acquired several items related to England's Glorious Revolution, which add to existing strengths in early English law and the history of constitutional law in the rare books collection. 

The Glorious Revolution involved a momentous series of events in 1688 and 1689, which tested the fabric (and the fiction) of constitutional government under a monarch.  King James II (1633-1701), son of the political survivor King Charles II (1630-1685), was tolerated less and less during his short reign (1685-88) for his Catholicism and for the suspension by his prerogative power of laws that prohibited Catholics from serving in public office. When Parliament objected, James followed his Stuart predecessors and dismissed the national legislative body in 1685, planning to fill it with men who would repeal those laws.  Before he could realize the plan, he also produced a male Catholic heir, traditionally seen as the final straw of his reign.  Opposition leaders called upon William, the Prince of Orange (1650-1702) and husband of James's daughter, Mary, to protect the country's "religion, lawes and liberties."  William made the journey to England from Holland at the head of an army, and James duly fled, giving the events the name of a "glorious" (and comparatively bloodless) revolution that has been preserved.  It is ironic, of course, that the furor over a king's abuse of power was caused by efforts to mitigate laws excluding a minority religion.

From a constitutional standpoint, William's invited invasion created another rather difficult problem: how to approach the question of an altered line of succession, and a new monarch, in law?  The king had by right traditionally called Parliament, but this Parliament was in effect calling a king.  And how to describe the action of James - was it an abdication or a desertion of the seat of power, and was the throne vacant?  Fine-pointed discussions turned on the law, and the meaning of James's act and its effects, as these were taken up and debated in a constitutional convention called to recognize William as king, and to settle the question of how William came to the throne.  In the end, constitutional devices were found, at least to the satisfaction of a majority of the convention's participants, to what was ultimately a political problem.  Apart from the wrangling, and the success of a new claimant, the most important item to result from the Revolution was the English Bill of Rights, a set of laws and rights that Parliament believed was fundamental to their nation, and could not be traduced by a king.  Prominently, the Bill of Rights required that no king suspend statutory law without the consent of Parliament, and that none would grant individual dispensations from the laws as had "been exercised of late."  Among other clauses were the prohibitions on excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments.  William agreed to limit the power of his government in order to take up the throne, the document was memorialized in statutory law, and it went on to influence the American Bill of Rights one hundred years later.

In our collection, we have a copy of the English Bill of Rights contained in laws issued in the first year of William and Mary's reign, and now several important related documents.  The first is a speech of William, Prince of Orange, convening (some) members of Parliament while in London in late December, 1688; and Parliament's hasty reply, requesting that William take over the affairs of state.  The second is a rare and very interesting broadside (below) listing all those called from each county in England to Parliament in an attempt to recognize William as king and Mary as queen.  The third is a speech by William in February 1689, just after he and Mary had accepted the Declaration of Rights (what became the English Bill of Rights in statute), which shows the negotiated nature of William and Mary's government, and the beginnings of England's more modern constitutional monarchy.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections       

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