Quotulatiousness

September 10, 2014

Ruining royal reputations – it didn’t start on Fleet Street

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

In Maclean’s, Patricia Treble reviews a new book by Jonathan Beckman, called How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair:

Three years before revolutionaries toppled Louis XVI and his Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette, France was mesmerized with a different tumult. Cardinal Louis de Rohan, scion of one of the nation’s grandest families, was in court, accused of stealing a famously expensive necklace from jewellers who’d created it. He claimed he’d acted at the behest of the queen, who then reneged on paying for the gaudy 2,800-carat piece. The resultant scandal solidified Marie Antoinette’s reputation for unbounded extravagance.

Yet, as Jonathan Beckman, explains in a masterful new account of the diamond necklace affair, nothing is as it appeared. There are fake royals, forged letters and disappearing gems as well as kidnappings, trysts and even a duel involving poisoned pigs. If the tale was fictional, it would be dismissed as an overwrought fantasy, yet in Beckman’s hands, its machinations unfold as an audacious caper that will enthrall readers much as the original events captivated Europe.

August 24, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part twelve of a series)

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

You can catch up on the earlier posts in this series here (now with hopefully helpful descriptions):

  1. Why it’s so difficult to answer the question “Who is to blame?”
  2. Looking back to 1814
  3. Bismarck, his life and works
  4. France isolated, Britain’s global responsibilities
  5. Austria, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan quagmire
  6. The Anglo-German naval race, Jackie Fisher, and HMS Dreadnought
  7. War with Japan, revolution at home: Russia’s self-inflicted miseries
  8. The First Balkan War
  9. The Second Balkan War
  10. The Entente Cordiale, Moroccan crises, and the influence of public opinion
  11. The Bosnian crisis of 1908

Who’s at the wheel? The less-than-transparent-or-unified governments of 1914

A common reaction (among both modern historians and lay readers) to the apparent incoherence of the decision-making process in the various great powers’ capitals is to ask just who exactly was in command when such-and-such a decision was taken. This reflects on our modern day belief that power has an identifiable source, and that actors had clear direction from a central authority. As Christopher Clark takes pains to outline in The Sleepwalkers this was not true even of the more centralized great powers:

… even a very cursory look at the governments of early twentieth-century Europe reveals that the executive structures from which policies emerged were far from unified. Policy-making was not the prerogative of single sovereign individuals. Initiatives with a bearing on the course of a country’s policy could and did emanate from quite peripheral locations in the political structure. Factional alignments, functional frictions within government, economic or financial constraints and the volatile chemistry of public opinion all exerted a constantly varying pressure on decision-making processes. As the power to shape decisions shifted from one node in the executive structure to another, there were corresponding oscillations in the tone and orientation of policy. This chaos of competing voices is crucial to understanding the periodic agitation of the European system during the last pre-war years. It also helps to explain why the July Crisis of 1914 became the most complex and opaque political crisis of modern times.

In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan writes:

Old institutions and values were under attack and new ways and new attitudes were emerging. Their world was changing, perhaps too fast, and they had to attempt to make sense of it. “What were they thinking?” is a question often asked about the Europeans who went to war in 1914. The ideas that influenced their view of the world, what they took for granted without discussion (what the historian James Joll called “unspoken assumptions”), what was changing and what was not, all are important parts of the context within which war, even a general European war, became a possible option in 1914.

The uneasy state of the Serbian state

Serbia had been practically an independent state since shrugging off the last Ottoman military occupation in 1867 and that independence was formally recognized by the great powers in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin which was the peace conference called to end the Russo-Turkish War (which we briefly looked at in part two). One of the provisions of the treaty that strongly displeased the Serbs was that they were forbidden to take over Bosnia, which instead was placed in the care of the Austro-Hungarian empire: the Serbs had gone to war with the Ottomans in 1876 by proclaiming a union with Bosnia. The Austrians and the other great powers preferred a weakened Ottoman empire to retain titular possession of Bosnia than to allow an upstart principality to claim it.

King Milan of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Milan of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

Serbia became a kingdom in 1882 under King Milan I. Milan had been adopted into the ruling Obrenović family after the death of his father in combat against the Ottomans. When Prince Mihailo Obrenović was assassinated in 1868, Milan was the eventual choice to succeed his adopted father. Milan remained king until he unexpectedly abdicated the throne in favour of his son Alexander in 1889. Despite having given up the throne, he returned to Serbia and eventually was appointed commander-in-chief of the Serbian army. He left that post in protest at his son’s marriage to Draga Mašin in 1900 and was banished for his pains. He died in 1901.

King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Alexander I did not long survive his father, being assassinated by members of an army conspiracy in 1903. The King had been ruling ever more harshly, creating much resentment through his arbitrary decrees and proclamations. The conspiracy was lead by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević (nicknamed “Apis”), who would also later found the secret organization Ujedinjenje ili smrt! known as the Black Hand. The assassinations were so gory that Quentin Tarantino might have directed the scene if it was written by George R.R. Martin (as described by Christopher Clark):

According to one account, the king, flabby, bespectacled and incongruously dressed in his red silk shirt, emerged with his arms around the queen. The couple were cut down in a hail of shots at point-blank range. Petrović [the king's adjutant], who drew a concealed revolver in a final hopeless bid to protect his master (or so it was later claimed), was also killed. An orgy of gratuitous violence followed. The corpses were stabbed with swords, torn with a bayonet, partially dismembered and hacked with an axe until they were mutilated beyond recognition, according to the later testimony of the king’s traumatized Italian barber, who was ordered to collect the bodies and dress them for burial. The body of the queen was hoisted to the railing of the bedroom window and tossed, virtually naked and slimy with gore, into the gardens. It was reported that as the assassins attempted to do the same with Alexandar, one of his hands closed momentarily around the railing. An officer hacked through the fist with a sabre and the body fell, with a sprinkle of severed digits, to the earth. By the time the assassins had gathered in the gardens to have a smoke and inspect the results of their handiwork, it had begun to rain.

King Peter I of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Peter I of Serbia (via Wikipedia)

King Alexander and Queen Draga had no children and the Queen’s brother was widely assumed to be the heir-presumptive. Both of the queen’s brothers and several government officials were killed in the purge following the assassinations. These actions ended the Obrenović dynasty, as Alexander was succeeded by King Peter I, of the Karađorđević dynasty (Serbia had the misfortune of having two rival royal families from the early 1800’s to the assassination of Alexander I). King Peter’s father had been Prince of Serbia until his abdication in 1858, after which the family lived in exile. Under the pseudonym Pierre or Peter Kara, Peter had served as a junior officer on the French side in the Franco-Prussian War. Using a different pseudonym, he lead a guerilla unit against Ottoman troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1875 and 1878. In 1883, he married the eldest daughter of the King of Montenegro. Through the connection between the royal families of Russia and Montenegro, two of his sons were enrolled in the Russian military academy.

Whether through fear of suffering the same kind of violent death as his predecessor or through a genuine belief in liberalization, King Peter’s early reign was marked by a return to more democratic representation and parliamentary control of the government. The Austrian government had been on relatively good terms with the former king, and viewed the increasing democratization in Serbia as a dangerous trend (for fear it would give more impetus to demands for autonomy not only in Bosnia, but also in other Slavic areas of the empire). The Wikipedia entry for King Peter’s reign is just a tad over-enthusiastic:

The Western-educated King attempted to liberalize Serbia with the goal of creating a Western-style constitutional monarchy. King Petar I became gradually very popular for his commitment to parliamentary democracy that, in spite of certain influence of military cliques in political life, functioned properly. The 1903 Constitution was a revised version of 1888 Constitution, based on the Belgian Constitution of 1831, considered as one of the most liberal in Europe.The governments were chosen from the parliamentary majority, mostly from People’s Radical Party (Narodna radikalna stranka) led by Nikola P. Pašić and Independent Radical Party (Samostalna radikalna stranka), led by Ljubomir Stojanović. King Peter himself was in favor of a broader coalition government that would boost Serbian democracy and help pursue an independent course in foreign policy. In contrast to Austrophile Obrenović dynasty, King Peter I was relying on Russia and France, which provoked rising hostility from expansionist-minded Austria-Hungary. King Peter I of Serbia paid two solemn visits to Saint-Petersbourg and Paris in 1910 and 1911 respectively, greeted as a hero of both democracy and national independence in the troublesome Balkans.

The reign of King Peter I Karadjordjević from 1903 to 1914, is remembered as the “Golden Age of Serbia” or the “Era of Pericles in Serbia”, due to the unrestricted political freedoms, free press, and cultural ascendancy among South Slavs who finally saw in democratic Serbia a Piedmont of South Slavs. King Peter I was supportive to the movement of Yugoslav unification, hosting in Belgrade various cultural gatherings. Grand School of Belgrade was upgraded into Belgrade University in 1905, with scholars of international renown such as Jovan Cvijić, Mihailo Petrović, Slobodan Jovanović, Jovan M. Žujović, Bogdan Popović, Jovan Skerlić, Sima Lozanić, Branislav Petronijević and several others.

The Black Hand: Serbia’s “plausibly deniable” interference in Bosnian affairs

The leader of the 1903 coup d’etat, former Captain, now Colonel Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijević was in a key position indeed — he was the head of the Serbian Military Intelligence service in 1914. From that important post, he was able to conduct covert operations against the neighbouring empires with an eye to destabilization and eventual military action. In 1911, Apis established Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (the Black Hand) to enable him to conduct operations separate from — but with goals aligned with — the formal state organization. Another semi-secret pan-Slavic organization set up a few years earlier became a very valuable tool in the hands of Apis: Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia).

Margaret MacMillan in The War That Ended Peace describes the kind of operations “Apis” set up and operated against Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans:

Within Serbia itself there was considerable support for the Young Bosnians and their activities. For a decade or more, parts of the Serbian government had encouraged the activities of quasi-military and conspiratorial organizations on the soil of Serbia’s enemies, whether the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary. The army provided money and weapons for armed Serbian bands in Macedonia and smuggled weapons into Bosnia much as Iran does today with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Margaret MacMillan describes the typical members of the Young Bosnians, who were of a type that we probably recognize more readily now than at any time since 1914:

[They] were mostly young Serb and Croat peasant boys who had left the countryside to study and work in the towns and cities of the Dual Monarchy and Serbia. While they had put on suits in place of their traditional dress and condemned the conservatism of their elders, they nevertheless found much in the modern world bewildering and disturbing. It is hard not to compare them to the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda a century later. Like those later fanatics, the Young Bosnians were usually fiercely puritanical, despising such things as alcohol and sexual intercourse. They hated Austria-Hungary in part because they blamed it for corrupting its South Slav subjects. Few of the Young Bosnians had regular jobs. Rather they depended on handouts from their families, with whom they had usually quarreled. They shared their few possessions, slept on each other’s floors, and spent hours over a single cup of coffee in cheap cafés arguing about life and politics. They were idealistic, and passionately committed to liberating Bosnia from foreign rule and to building a new and fairer world. Strongly influenced by the great Russian revolutionaries and anarchists, the Young Bosnians believed that they could only achieve their goals through violence and, if necessary, the sacrifice of their own lives.

Apis and his Bosnian operators were determined to take advantage of the announced visit by Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in June, 1914. The Archduke was the heir-presumptive to the throne of the Dual Monarchy and (contrary to what a lot of people believed at the time) a moderate who hoped to use his visit to reduce tension between the monarchy and the Slavic people in the southern fringe of the empire. He had already spoken against the empire taking military action against Serbia on more than one occasion after provocation … if he were not on the scene, Apis calculated, the chances of war went up significantly.

The stage is set, the pieces are starting to fall into place, and the curtain is about to go up.

July 28, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One?

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:47

It’s an easy question to ask, but a very hard one to answer. Traditionally, most people would answer “Germany”, with greater or lesser intensity as the years have passed (for example, here’s Boris Johnson making this particular case). More realistically, you might say Germany, Serbia, Austria, and Russia. Or just Serbia. Or just Russia. Or Britain (according to Niall Ferguson). Or France. Or the inflexible railway timetables for mobilization (Barbara Tuchman and others). Lots of candidates, none of whom can be clearly identified as the prime villain, because you can’t look at the situation in Europe in 1914 as anything other than complexity compounded.

Two recent works (both highly recommended) discuss the origins of the war in great detail and I’ve drawn on them for much of these posts:

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan

There have been so many books written about the origins of the First World War because the origins are many, diverse, interconnected, and hard to weigh against one another in any rational fashion. The assassinations in Sarajevo turned out to be the triggering event, but the war could easily have broken out at any of several other potential flash points in the preceding decade — and even then, war could still have been prevented from breaking out in the summer of 1914. In some ways, it’s surprising that the alternative history folks haven’t been more active in exploring that era: the possibilities are quite fascinating (on second thought, having put this post together, the degree of confusion may account for the novelists wisely avoiding the topic after all).

Europe, 1914 (base map by d-maps.com)

Europe, 1914 (base map by d-maps.com)

Although many authors refer to the various monarchs as active participants in the diplomatic and political spheres, this is not always an accurate way to consider their roles. The Tsar enjoyed the equivalent of a presidential veto and could start or stop government activity with a word … but most matters, even high-level military and diplomatic issues, would only come to his attention quite late in the process. This meant the Tsar might want to change his government’s course but because the situation was already well advanced, the costs to do so might well be insurmountable. Tsar Nicholas II was perhaps the worst-equipped of all the leaders of Europe for the task facing him, emotionally and intellectually (and he was aware of his weaknesses). Even Kaiser Wilhelm, who was well-known for his quixotic interference in military and diplomatic matters, was not the sole autocrat of German policy. The chancellor and the foreign secretary could (and did) overrule the Kaiser’s whims on many occasions. On the other hand, King George V was the least directly involved of all the rulers in the actions of his empire, but his public stance may have been somewhat at variance with his private communications with crown ministers (for example, this recent article in the Telegraph claims that the King pushed Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to “find a reason” to declare war on Germany).

A common misconception of the state of Europe in early 1914 was that the preceding century had been a golden age, peaceful and calm (think of all the discussions of the idyllic Edwardian era when contrasted with the chaos and disorder of 1914-1945 and beyond). Europe was only peaceful between 1815 and 1914 by contrast with previous centuries … there were many wars and the map of Europe was redrawn several times in that century. As Christopher Clark wrote:

Though the debate on this subject is now nearly a century old, there is no reason to believe that it has run its course.

But if the debate is old, the subject is still fresh — in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The changes in our own world have altered our perspective on the events of 1914. In the 1960s-80s, a kind of period charm accumulated in popular awareness around the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ‘ornamentalism’ of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too.

Margaret MacMillan shows how easily the calculations could go so wrong, so easily:

As we try to make sense of the events of the summer of 1914, we must put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived a century ago before we rush to lay blame. We cannot now ask the decision-makers what they were thinking about as they took those steps along that path to destruction, but we can get a pretty good idea from the records of that time and the memoirs written later. One thing that becomes clear is that those who made the choices had very much in mind previous crises and earlier moments when decisions were made or avoided.

Russia’s leaders, for example, had never forgotten or forgiven Austria-Hungary’s annexations of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Moreover, Russia had failed to back its protégé Serbia when it confronted Austria-Hungary then and again in the Balkan wars in 1912-13. Now Austria-Hungary was threatening to destroy Serbia. What would it mean for Russia and its prestige if it stood by yet again and did nothing? Germany had not fully backed its ally Austria-Hungary in those earlier confrontations; if it did nothing this time, would it lose its only sure ally? The fact that earlier and quite serious crises among the powers, over colonies or in the Balkans, had been settled peacefully added another factor to the calculations of 1914. The threat of war had been used but in the end pressures had been brought to bear by third parties, concessions had been made, and conferences had been summoned, with success, to sort out dangerous issues. Brinksmanship had paid off.

Part one of a series of posts (I’m still digging deeper, so I’m not sure how many parts there will be…)

July 16, 2014

QotD: Runnymede

Filed under: History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

We went over to Magna Charta Island, and had a look at the stone which stands in the cottage there and on which the great Charter is said to have been signed; though, as to whether it really was signed there, or, as some say, on the other bank at “Runningmede,” I decline to commit myself. As far as my own personal opinion goes, however, I am inclined to give weight to the popular island theory. Certainly, had I been one of the Barons, at the time, I should have strongly urged upon my comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.

July 15, 2014

QotD: King George III’s minor fit of barking

Filed under: Britain, Government, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

It is a painful thing to confront someone whom one is accustomed to respecting, and to tell that person they are barking mad. Usually one avoids it, or dismisses the other’s strange behavior as “a difference of opinion,” and speaks platitudes about “the importance of diversity,” however when a person is going, “Arf! Arf!” right in your face, there is no way around it. This includes governments, when they become barking mad.

Thomas Jefferson knew this, when he quilled the Declaration of Independence, listing King George’s barking mad behaviors, however there has been a recent, revisionist effort to show that King George the Third wasn’t all that bad, and his blue urine wasn’t due to porphuria, and his spells of foaming at the mouth were but minor episodes, especially when he was young and was busily losing the American colonies. (I think this may in part be due to the fact that porphuria is hereditary, and certain people don’t want the rabble giving Prince Charles appraising looks.)

The argument states that, if you could get an audience at his glittering palace, King George was quite lucid, and even charming, and that the points he raised, about the government’s right to tax, are valid to this day. There is even some reproach towards America and Jefferson for failing to understand King George’s points.

However taxation was not the issue. Taxation without representation was the issue. When one looks back with twenty-twenty hindsight, the solution to the problem seems simple: Simply give the thirteen colony’s thirteen elected representatives in Parliament. It seems like such an obvious thing, to give Englishmen abroad the same rights as Englishmen at home, and seems so conducive to unity and the expansion of an unified kingdom, that to switch the subject to the-right-of-the-government-to-tax seems a sleight of hand bound to stub thumbs, to lead to schism, and to create discord out of harmony. It was, in fact, a barking mad thing for King George to do.

Caleb Shaw, “Barking Mad – A rave, prompted by facing insane heating costs”, Watts Up With That?, 2014-07-14.

July 6, 2014

Henry II – “from the Devil he came, and to the Devil he will surely go”

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:40

Nicholas Vincent looks at the reign of King Henry II, the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty who died on this day in 1189:

Although in December 1154, Henry was generally recognised as the legitimate claimant to the throne, most notably by the English Church, his accession was fraught with perils. Among the Anglo-Norman aristocracy there were many who saw Henry as an outsider: an Angevin princeling, descended via his father, Count Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, from a dynasty that had long been regarded as the principal rival on Normandy’s southern frontier. King Stephen had left a legitimate son, William Earl Warenne, still living in 1154, and Henry himself had two younger brothers who might well have disputed his claims to succeed to all his family’s lands and titles. Asked some years before to judge Henry’s chances of success, St Bernard of Clairvaux is said to have predicted of Henry that ‘from the Devil he came, and to the Devil he will surely go’.

Yet, from what contemporaries termed ‘the shipwreck’, and modern historians have described as ‘the anarchy’ of Stephen’s reign, Henry II was to emerge as one of England’s, indeed as one of Europe’s, greatest kings. The Plantagenet dynasty that he founded was to occupy the throne of England through to 1399 and the eighth successive generation. Henry himself came to rule over the most extensive collection of lands that had ever been gathered together under an English king – an empire in all but name, that stretched from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees, and from Dublin in the west to the frontiers of Flanders and Burgundy in the east.

In part this empire was the product of dynastic accident. From his mother, Matilda, daughter and sole surviving legitimate child of the last Anglo-Norman King, Henry inherited his claim to rule as king in England and as duke in Normandy. From his father, Geoffrey, he succeeded to rule over Anjou, Maine and the Touraine: the counties of the Loire valley that had previously blocked Anglo-Norman ambitions in the South. Rather than share these inherited spoils with his brothers, Henry seized everything for himself. William, his younger brother, was granted a rich but by no means royal estate. Geoffrey, the third brother, threatened rebellion but was bought off with a shortlived grant of the county of Nantes.

Henry, however, was far more than just a fortunate or crafty elder son. Through his own exertions he greatly expanded his family’s territorial claims. In 1152, two years before obtaining the throne of England, he had married Eleanor, heiress to the duchy of Aquitaine and only a few weeks earlier divorced from her previous husband, the Capetian King Louis VII. As effective ruler of Eleanor’s lands, Henry found himself in possession of a vast estate in south-western France, stretching from the Loire southwards through Poitou and Gascony to the frontiers of Spain. Henry’s marriage to Eleanor was regarded as scandalous even by his own courtiers. She was eleven years older than him and was rumoured to have enjoyed extra-marital affairs not only with her own uncle but with Henry’s father, Geoffrey Plantagenet. By temperament she was as fiery as Henry, and as determined to stake her own claims to rule. As a result, Henry’s domestic life was far from tranquil. From 1173 onwards, Eleanor was to be held under house arrest in England, whilst Henry, to judge by the bastard children that he fathered, had long enjoyed the favours of a series of mistresses. Even so, by his marriage, Henry laid the basis of the later claims made by England’s kings to rule over southern France: claims that were to unite Gascony to the English crown as late as the fifteenth century and which were to play a vital role in the history of Anglo-French relations throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

July 4, 2014

Reason.tv – Presidential Power and the Rise of American Monarchy

Filed under: Government, History, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

Published on 3 Jul 2014

“America is dropping like a stone in rankings of freedom. As power accumulates in one person, expect that to continue,” says Frank Buckley, George Mason University law professor and author of the new book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.

Buckley sat down with Reason TV‘s Tracy Oppenheimer to discuss how the U.S. presidency has evolved into what he calls “something like an elective monarch.” He says that this is not what the framers of the Constitution had intended, nor did they conceive of the modern version of the separation of powers.

“A parliamentary regime was more or less what the framers wanted…as far as the separation of powers is concerned,” says Buckley “instead of a device to constrain a president, it’s one which immunizes him from criticism by Congress.”

QotD: The English Civil War of 1776

Filed under: Britain, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

It is fashionable today to view the Revolution as one might a traditional war between foreign powers, but, in truth, the break of 1776 was the latest in a series of fallings out between brothers — a civil war fought by men who were separated by an ocean but not by a history. Reading through the extraordinary profusion of pamphlets and gripes that the crisis produced, one cannot help but be impressed by how keenly the revolutionaries hewed to existing principle. Thomas Paine, perhaps the most radical of the agitators, may have believed that he could start the world all over again, but the colonists who marched with him mostly definitely did not. Instead, they sought a restoration of their inheritance, the Constitutional Congress asserting in 1774 that British subjects in America were “entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England.” In the same year, William Henry Drayton, a lawyer from South Carolina who later served as a delegate to the Congress, fleshed out the claim, establishing in a tract of his own that he and his countrymen were “entitled to the common law of England formed by their common ancestors; and to all and singular the benefits, rights, liberties and claims specified in Magna Charta, in the petition of Rights, in the Bill of Rights, and in the Act of Settlement.” With this popular sentiment, Drayton and his acolytes set themselves up as the Roundheads of the New World, linking spiritual arms with the parliamentarians of the English civil war, with the seditious architects of the Glorious Revolution, and with all who had established colonial outposts in the name of English freedom.

[...]

Fear of potentates ran deep within the Anglo-American tradition. When the mutinous Immortal Seven ushered in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, their invitation to William of Orange related that the people were “generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government, in relation to their religion, liberties and properties (all which have been greatly invaded).” As Daniel Hannan observes in Inventing Freedom, these three objects were philosophically inextricable. Protestantism, Hannan notes, was seen by the architects of English liberty in “political rather than theological terms, as guarantor of free speech, free conscience, and free parliament”; Catholicism, by contrast, was held to consume those virtues and to lead, inexorably, to monarchy. The fear of “popery” that helped to usher in the Glorious Revolution was certainly more pronounced in England that it was in America. But the concerns that motivated it were not, being instead inseparable from the fundamental political question, which was, “are we to rule ourselves or are we to be ruled by Kings and by Popes?” It stood to reason then that those who had become accustomed to expecting to enjoy a relationship with God that was not refereed by a host of spiritual bureaucrats would be able to more easily imagine governing their own worldly affairs, as it made sense that a culture in which the laity was encouraged to read Scripture for itself would be one in which subjects would more quickly rush to the defense of parliaments against the King. As ever, the instinct was toward the fragmentation of power.

Charles C.W. Cooke, “The Civil War of 1776″, National Review, 2014-07-03.

June 20, 2014

The Black Death, the peasants’ revolt, and … tax increases

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:47

Put yourself in the position of an advisor to the 10-year old King Richard II shortly after his coronation in 1377. You’ve just witnessed one of the greatest population disasters in European history — the Black Death — where one third of the people of all classes died. The crown is at war with France (the Hundred Years’ War), and there’s little or no money in the treasury. You could probably come up with better policy ideas in your sleep than what Richard’s advisors did:

Fixated with outright victory in the One Hundred Years War, started by his grandfather Edward III, Richard’s government introduced hugely unpopular poll taxes in 1377 and 1379. A further tax introduced in 1381 was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Irrespective of wealth, the tax was fixed at a rate of 12 pence per person, meaning that it was a huge burden on the poor, but a minor inconvenience to the wealthy. In addition, rumours spread of widespread corruption in the government. The peasants were ripe for revolt.

Following the expulsion of a tax collector from the town Brentwood, 30 kilometres north-east of London, a band of rebels swept through Kent and Essex, swelling their numbers with volunteers as they went. They advanced upon London in a pincer movement from the south and east. The two leaders of the rebellion emerged as Wat Tyler, of whom little was previously known, and John Ball, a radical priest who had been broken out of prison by Kentish rebels, where he had been held for his beliefs in social equality and a fair distribution of wealth within the church. Indeed, as he preached to the crowd of thousands of rebels at Blackheath, then just outside London, he cried: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.’

Londoners willingly opened the gates of their city to the rebels who set about their task with fervour. They sacked Savoy Palace, the home of the key adviser to the now 14-year-old Richard. Guards in the Tower of London opened the gates to the rebels, who freed the inmates and executed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Treasurer of England, who had been hiding inside. There were also several incidents of misplaced rage among the rebels, like when the crowd set their sights upon Flemish immigrants, many of whom were wealthy wool merchants, and murdered them in the streets.

Faced with a grave situation, the young king rode out to meet the rebel leaders at Blackheath. Their demands were an end to poll taxes, an immediate end to serfdom, the introduction of a more democratic form of government with local representation based on the Provisions of Oxford in 1258, and a fair distribution of wealth and power from the nobility. Richard initially gave into their demands as well as issuing pardons for all involved.

It got worse (for the peasants) after that brief high point…

June 16, 2014

Magna Carta

Filed under: Britain, History, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:35

Allan Massie says there was “nothing revolutionary” about the signing of the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215:

The document was presented to the king and his signature, by seal, extracted. He had violated so many customs of the realm and infringed long-established liberties, which we might rather call privileges, that his rule in its present form had become intolerable to the barons and landholders, to the Church, and to the merchants of boroughs protected by their own charters.

The Magna Carta rehearsed these customs and liberties. It was a reproof to the king, to compel him to mend his ways. Far from being an abstract statement of rights, it was a practical document: calling the king to order, reminding him of the limits on his power, and insisting that he was not above the law, but subject to it.

This was not unusual. Kings had been brought to a similar point before. Medieval monarchy was limited monarchy, in theory and of necessity. Kings had to govern in collaboration with “the Community of the Realm” (essentially the propertied classes) and with their consent. Ultimately, having neither a standing army nor a police force, they had little choice. Moreover, the society of the Middle Ages was intensely legalistic – and the purpose of Magna Carta was to remind the king of what the laws were and of his duty to observe them if he himself was to receive loyalty and obedience.

If Shakespeare makes no mention of the document it is because in the years of the Tudor despotism the balance between government and governed shifted in favour of the former. The Tudors made use of what were called the Prerogative Courts to bypass the common law of England. Torture, practised on “subversive” Roman Catholics by the Elizabethan government, was illegal under the common law (and indeed under Magna Carta), but inflicted by the judgment of the Prerogative Courts (the Star Chamber and High Commission).

It was the parliamentary and judicial opposition to the less effective (and less oppressive) despotism of the early Stuarts which revived interest in Magna Carta, now presented as the safeguard or guarantee of English liberty. Though it had been drawn up by Anglo-Norman bishops and presented to the king by Anglo-Norman barons, the theory was developed that it represented a statement of the rights and liberties enjoyed in Anglo-Saxon England by the “free-born” Englishmen before they were subjugated to the “Norman Yoke”.

This, doubtless, offered an unhistorical and rather-too-rosy view of Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, but it had this to be said for it: that the Norman and Plantagenet kings had regularly promised to abide by the “laws of King Edward” – the saintly “Confessor” and second-last Saxon king.

May 26, 2014

QotD: The “inevitability” of Austro-Hungarian collapse

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:48

These spectacular symptoms of dysfunctionality might appear to support the view that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a moribund polity whose disappearance from the political map was merely a matter of time: an argument deployed by hostile contemporaries to suggest that the empire’s efforts to defend its integrity during the last years before the outbreak of war were in some sense illegitimate. In reality, the roots of Austria-Hungary’s political turbulence went less deep than appearances suggested. [...]

The Habsburg lands passed during the last pre-war decade through a phase of strong economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity — an important point of contrast with the contemporary Ottoman Empire, but also with another classic collapsing polity, the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Free markets and competition across the empire’s vast customs union stimulated technical progress and the introduction of new products. The sheer size and diversity of the double monarchy meant that new industrial plants benefited from sophisticated networks of cooperating industries underpinned by an effective transport infrastructure and a high-quality service and support sector. The salutary economic effects were particularly evident in the Kingdom of Hungary. In the 1840s. Hungary really had been the larder of the Austrian Empire — 90 per cent of its exports to Austria consisted of agricultural products. But by the years 1909-13, Hungarian industrial exports had risen to 44 per cent, while the constantly growing demand for cheap foodstuffs of the Austro-Bohemian industrial region ensured the Hungarian agricultural sector survived in the best of health, protected by the Habsburg common market from Romanian, Russian and American competition. For the monarchy as a whole, most economic historians agree that the period 1887-1913 saw an ‘industrial revolution’, or a take-off into self-sustaining growth, with the usual indices of expansion: pig-iron consumption increased fourfold between 1881 and 1911, railroad coverage did the same between 1870 and 1900 and infant mortality decreased, while elementary schooling figures surpassed those in Germany, France, Italy and Russia. In the last years before the war, Austria-Hungary and Hungary in particular (with an average annual growth of 4.8 per cent) was one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

May 17, 2014

QotD: Modern echoes of 1914

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Though the debate on this subject is now nearly a century old, there is no reason to believe that it has run its course.

But if the debate is old, the subject is still fresh — in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The changes in our own world have altered our perspective on the events of 1914. In the 1960s-80s, a kind of period charm accumulated in popular awareness around the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ‘ornamentalism’ of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too.

And yet what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extra-territorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization. Indeed, one could even say that July 1914 is less remove from us — less illegible — now than it was in the 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914. These shifts in perspective prompt us to rethink the story of how war came to Europe. Accepting this challenge does not mean embracing a vulgar presentism that remakes the past to meet the needs of the present but rather acknowledging those features of the past of which our changed vantage point can afford us a clearer view.

Among these is the Balkan context of the war’s inception. Serbia is one of the blind spots in the historiography of the July Crisis. The assassination at Sarajevo is treated in many accounts as a mere pretext, an event with little bearing on the real forces whose interaction brought about the conflict. In an excellent recent account of the outbreak of war in 1914, the authors declare that ‘the killings [at Sarajevo] by themselves caused nothing. It was the use made of this event that brought the nations to war.’ The marginalization of the Serbian and thereby of the larger Balkan dimension of the story began during the July Crisis itself, which opened as a response to the murders at Sarajevo, but later changed gear, entering a geopolitical phase in which Serbia and its actions occupied a subordinate place.

Our moral compass has shifted, too. The fact that Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia emerged as one of the victor states of the war seemed implicitly to vindicate the act of the man who pulled the trigger on 28 June — certainly that was the view of the Yugoslav authorities, who marked the spot where he did so with bronze footprints and a plaque celebrating the assassin’s ‘first steps into Yugoslav freedom’. In an era when the national idea was still full of promise, there was an intuitive sympathy with South Slav nationalism and little affection for the ponderous multinational commonwealth of the Habsburg Empire. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have reminded us of the lethality of Balkan nationalism. Since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, it has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as an historical force in its own right. From the perspective of today’s European Union we are inclined to look more sympathetically — or at least less contemptuously — than we used to on the vanished imperial patchwork of Habsburg Austria-Hungary.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

March 14, 2014

QotD: The nature of government

Filed under: Government, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:53

All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: Its one permanent object is to police him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. Thus one of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives.

H.L. Mencken, “Le Contrat Social”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922

December 27, 2013

QotD: The Church of England

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:47

“Getting the PM to choose the right bishop is like a conjuror getting a member of the audience to choose a card. With the Church of England the choice is usually between a knave and a queen.”

“The bench of bishops should have a proper balance between those who believe in God and those who don’t.”

“Bishops tend to live a long time, perhaps because the Almighty is not all that keen for them to join him.”

“The plans for a new church in South London had places for dispensing orange juice, family planning, and organizing demos, but nowhere to celebrate Holy Communion.”

“Theology is a device for helping agnostics to stay within the Church of England.”

“The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England. God is an optional extra.”

Jonathan Lynn, “Yes Minister Series: Quotes from the dialogue”, JonathanLynn.com

December 19, 2013

QotD: Blackadder greets Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Filed under: Britain, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Ebenezer Blackadder: Cork it, fatso! Don’t you realise that this is the Victorian Age, where apart from Queen Piglet-Features herself, women and children are to be seen and not heard!

Prince Albert: Queen Piglet-Features!

Ebenezer Blackadder: Yes! “Empress Oink,” us lads call her. The only person in the kingdom who looks dafter than her is that stupid Frankfurter of a husband. “The Pig and the Prig,” we call them. How they ever managed to produce their one hundred and twelve children is quite beyond me. The bed-chambers of Buckingham Palace must be copiously supplied with blindfolds!

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, 1988.

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