What can we learn from the downfall of a king?
I know. You’re all expecting me to weigh in on Mueller, Trump, and impeachment. However, I just finished watching documentary series from the BBC which may impart lessons for our current political and constitutional crisis.
Charles I, the second Stuart monarch of England, was, from all accounts, a popinjay. He had no empathy, couldn’t read people, and was convinced in his divine right to rule. No one had any right to question his decisions. Sound familiar?
For most of his reign, he tried to rule without Parliament. To him, Parliament’s only role was to vote him money. And if he could acquire money from customary duties owed to the Crown, he would dispense with it as much as he could.
By 1641, however, he had run out of money, and had to call a new Parliament.
England in 1641 was a divided nation. Roughly speaking, you had Royalists who would uphold the King’s prerogatives, and Parliamentarians, who sought to hem the King in by law.
The chief of these Parliamentarians was John Pym. Now, he was not, as the kids say, a nice guy. He was a bigoted religious zealot who saw the hand of Popery in everything Charles and his French wife, Henrietta Maria, did. Charles and his court were threats to traditional English liberties. Pym’s goal was to make Charles’ “tyranny” so evident that Parliament would act to curb his powers and that of any future monarch.
I won’t go into detail about the chess game played between Charles and Pym. Suffice it to say that Pym goaded Charles into overreacting, disastrously so.
Charles ordered the arrest of Pym and four of his cohorts. Parliament refused to honor the warrant. Charles rushed to Parliament with 400 soldiers to execute the arrest. But, due to there being a spy in the royal court, Pym was tipped off and escaped. Charles burst into Parliament, upending centuries of privilege, and demanded the Speaker to point out the accused. And this is where the drama reaches its climax: Mr. Speaker responded that he could not speak absent the orders of Parliament. In that one sentence, royal power was swept away. The king wasn’t his master; Parliament was. Charles beat a hasty retreat. Pym got what he wanted: blatant evidence of Charles’ tyranny.
Any student of history knows the rest. Civil war. Charles’ execution. A military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. And then the Restoration in 1660.
But the fifty days which led to the outbreak of war are illustrative. The point was to goad Charles into actions which would rupture his power. A wily and cagey leader did just that.
Unfortunately, as I wrote, this led not to a constitutional settlement, but to war.
I offer this lesson not as an argument for or against any course of action. My only statement is this: both Charles and Pym had different outcomes in mind when they began their chess match. What actually happened probably wasn’t what they thought would happen. Charles thought he could crush the opposition and return to the status quo. Pym wanted to erect a new constitution where the king would be subject to law. The war which transpired was in neither of their calculations. But once an action is taken, or not taken, the repercussions are unpredictable. We now in 2019 think we know what will happen if Trump is impeached, or if Trump isn’t impeached. But we really don’t.
We are on a precipice just as England was in 1642. May we be wiser in how we choose our next step.
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