Happy Accidents and Good Luck

Author Michael Barone talks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the roots of the American political system.

HUMANITIES, July/August 2007, Volume 28, Number 4

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole recently spoke with Michael Barone, magazine columnist and author of Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval that Inspired America’s Founding Fathers, about the hows and whys of the American and British political systems.

BRUCE COLE: As a writer, you wear a number of hats. Tell me about them.

MICHAEL BARONE: Well, I’m a senior writer for U.S. News and World Report. I’m a Fox News contributor, which means I do not contribute my commentary to Fox, I sell it. I’m coauthor of a book called The Almanac of American Politics. I’m preparing the 2008 version now— it will be 19th edition.

COLE: I read your Almanac all of the time. I read it, because I want to find out information about someone on the Hill or the makeup of a congressional district. It’s a true almanac. It has statistics, history, culture, and politics. I’m a definite fan. How many years have you been doing the almanac?

BARONE: Thirty-six years. I was one of the original coauthors.

COLE: Have you always been interested in politics?

BARONE: Well, yes. I started off being interested, as a child, in election statistics, in demographic data.

COLE: And how old were you then?
BARONE: I remember when my parents bought a set of The World Book Encyclopedia, around 1951 or 52, when I was seven or eight years old. I was so glad to see that they had not only the 1940 census populations for the states and cities and counties, but also the 1950 census populations. I started making tables comparing the 1950 census and the 1940 census.

I also remember my mother telling me that, in our neighborhood, the Protestants voted Republican and the Catholics voted Democratic. I thought, why should this be so? I’ve been trying to answer questions like that ever since.

COLE: You started early.

BARONE: Yes. (Laughter.) Most of the other kids were out playing, and I was memorizing the fact that the population of Detroit, where I lived in 1950, was 1,849,568, and that Los Angeles had passed it in the 1950 census, and it was 1,970,144. And those numbers have remained imprinted on my brain.

COLE: What is the population of Detroit now? Do you know?

BARONE: Well, the latest census estimate for 2005 is 866,000, less than half, almost a million people fewer.

COLE: I grew up in the Midwest, in Cleveland, which has also shrunk abysmally, the population. My mother bought some World Books as well. That’s where I figure I got an education. I got hooked on those World Books and, I think, the stories too.

BARONE: I think we’ve got a lot to thank encyclopedia salesmen for.

COLE: I’ve read that you’ve visited every congressional district, in every state. How did you get started doing that?

BARONE: I’ve always been interested in beginnings, in traditions, in how things got started. In my write ups of the states and the various congressional districts, I often go back to origins. Why is New Hampshire the kind of place it is? Well, because it was a very different sort of colony from Massachusetts. It was made up of people who didn’t want to live in Massachusetts. They wanted to “live free or die” as the state’s motto says. They didn’t want the Puritan ministers of Boston or the King’s customs collectors to get in their way of practicing their religion and making money, despite the English Navigation Acts. And so, New Hampshire has had a character different from Massachusetts that continues to shape its politics. I tried to do that for each state and district.

After I coauthored my first Almanac of American Politics, which came out in 1971, I had already traveled a fair amount around the country. I grew up in Michigan and the Midwest, and went to college and law school in Massachusetts and Connecticut. It occurred to me that I was writing about these 435 districts, but I hadn’t been in even a majority of them.

So, over the years, I undertook to travel, and to go out of my way sometimes, to go to different states and congressional districts. When I’d go to big metropolitan areas, I would make a point not just of going to the downtown where the meeting room was located, but to drive around the suburbs, to get a sense of the different city neighborhoods, the historic neighborhoods and new ones springing up at the edges of the metropolitan areas. I wanted to match my firsthand experiences with my knowledge of demographic data, census data, and election returns, not just contemporary, but going back over the years. I have a pretty good command of all the election returns for president, Congress, and governor, going back to 1960. I don’t know every percentage down to the decimal point, but I have a pretty good idea of how they voted and a fairly good idea of how places voted between 1930 and 1960.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve enjoyed the experience of going back to places, to rural areas, to city neighborhoods, to suburbs—which I first saw thirty, even forty, years ago and—seeing how they’ve changed. Going back to Brooklyn neighborhoods that seemed to be a bunch of old people dying out, remnants of 1920s immigrant communities, and seeing how they’ve come alive with gentrifiers or with people from the Caribbean.

In February 1998, when I landed at the Anchorage airport, I’d completed my journey with my fiftieth state and 435th congressional district. I decided to go to Alaska in the winter when it’s really Alaska, rather than going in the summer when most tourists go. I wanted to see what it’s like when it’s dark most of the time, when there’s snow on the ground, and when it’s really cold. I flew up to the North Slope oil fields and I asked them what the temperature was and they said, “Forty below.” And I said, “Is that Centigrade or Fahrenheit?” And they said, “That’s where the scales cross.”

COLE: I don’t know how many people actually read the Almanac for pleasure, but I do. It gives you a real sense of what a place is like—its industries, agriculture, and city life.

BARONE: I’ve had some friends and strangers, who have told me that when they travel around the country in their cars or fly someplace, they take my Almanac with them so they can learn about where they are going.

COLE: You’ve written other books as well.

BARONE: I’ve written four other books. Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan is sort of a narrative political history of the United States from 1930 to 1988. In 2001, I wrote a book called The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again about immigration and assimilation. In 2004, I did Hard America, Soft America: Competition Vs. Coddling and the Battle for America’s Future, which is sort of a retrospective look at the history of America. I defined “hard America” as the parts of American life where we have competition and accountability. “Soft America” is the part of American life where we don’t. We generally perform better when we have competition.

COLE: Can you give me an example?

BARONE: Education. With the progressive educators of the 1920s, and going into the 1950s, we had a “soft America”: not very much rigor, accountability, or competition. In the wake of the Soviets launching Sputnik in 1957, we hardened education, introducing more competition and accountability. Then, in the wake of the 60s, education softened again. Everybody must pass. Everybody gets high honors. Beginning in the 90s, we started to see more competition and accountability. It came not from centralized authorities, such as the federal government or the education and university establishment, but from state and local authorities and private non-governmental actors. That’s had some positive effects. The federal government came in after the states started hardening their education. It was a new way of looking at America.

COLE: Give me an example of some changes. How did education harden itself?

BARONE: I was prompted to write the book by the observation that most American high school graduates don’t seem to be competent to do anything. And yet, in a very few years, many of them become highly competent, whether you’re talking about people at select universities or the private sector or the U.S. military.

That prompted me to ask the question: Why does this country have incompetent eighteen-year-olds and competent thirty-year-olds? Our eighteen-year-olds are less competent than eighteen-year-olds in France. Our thirty-year-olds are more competent than people in France. I came to the conclusion that for the first eighteen years, most Americans live in “soft America.” Then they encounter “hard America” and they start performing.

In France and Europe, it’s just the other way around. They have a pretty rigorous education. So, you’ve got “hard France” up to age eighteen. And then, after age eighteen, you’re sort of guaranteed to make a living without any accountability. You have a soft adulthood.

COLE: You also have a new book out, Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America’s Founding Fathers. How did you find your way to seventeenth-century England?

BARONE: I decided to go back in time and see where the roots of some of our important institutions and traditions come from. Many writers have been exploring the Founding Fathers, and there’s been a great appetite among American readers for reading about them. We have wonderful histories and accounts of people like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton that have been published in recent years.

I also noticed that people had an interest in where this unique system of government and society came from. Why are we blessed with such wonderful institutions? And we’ve looked often, and rightly, to the Founding Fathers for answers to that question.

I decided that I would look back beyond the Founding Fathers, because they weren’t writing on a blank slate. They were people who were very much aware of history. They began their protests against the British government in the 1760s by asserting that they were not enjoying the rights of Englishmen, rights that they felt they were entitled to. Where did these rights come from? What was the system of government they were appealing to? This was the system that was put in place by an event that historians call the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, the ouster of King James II and the instillation of William and Mary as King and Queen.

I’d first read about the Glorious Revolution in Thomas Macaulay’s History of England, which is a wonderful, driving narrative, but one that can be difficult for the average American reader to understand, because Macaulay assumes a large degree of knowledge about the past and about England.

There have been other books written about the revolution. Recent accounts have been aimed primarily at academic audiences, people who are already familiar with the history, or for British audiences, who have a frame of reference that most Americans lack.

As I read about this set of events, it seemed to me that this was a giant step forward for representative government, guaranteed liberties, global capitalism, and an anti-tyrannical foreign policy. It was also an event, or set of events, that was extremely unlikely. It was against the odds.

Here you had the English, who were unhappy with their king, James II. He was a Catholic. They felt that Catholicism was tyrannical. He was attempting to do what other rulers in Europe were doing at that time, which was to end the independence of the representative assembly, the Parliament, and to move toward a system of absolutist government that seemed to be the wave of the future in the late 1600s in Europe. He is ousted, in large part, by the singular efforts of William, Prince of Orange. William was the Stadtholder of the Netherlands from the time he was twenty-one years old and also happened to be James’ son-in-law and nephew.

COLE: That’s an interesting family relationship.

BARONE: Well, this was royal Europe and they tended to intermarry. So, you have things like King James II of England and Louis XIV of France as first cousins. William married Mary, the daughter of James II, who was his first cousin. His mother had been the sister of James II.

COLE: But just because they were family, it didn’t mean that they were all on the same side or had the same interests.

BARONE: Exactly. These people, in some sense, knew each other, but at the same time, they operated with obstacles of transportation and communication, which we don’t have today. There was great uncertainty about what they did. William of Orange assembled an army of twenty-five thousand men, including his best Dutch troops and a fleet of five hundred ships. The fleet was three times the size of the Spanish Armada one hundred years before. The Dutch crossed the English Channel in November, which is not a month you would advise people to cross the Channel on a military invasion, and landed safely in the southwest of England. William’s troops advanced. James brought an army out from London, but at a crucial moment, he fled. His leading general, his most able general, John Churchill, later the Duke of Marlborough, ancestor of Winston Churchill, went over the lines. After having dinner with James, he got on his horse and rode over to William’s forces and defected. There was also a conspiracy inside the military to desert James.

James fled back to London. In a matter of some weeks, he fled to France. The English were presented with this question of, what do we do now?

COLE: What the English decided to do had lasting influence. Can you talk about that?

BARONE: What came next was the Revolutionary Settlement, which set a number of precedents that proved to be enduring. William of Orange, rather than declaring himself king, arranged for the calling of a Parliament, which in turn asked him to be king. He gave them a little nudge at a propitious time. William chose to rule with Parliament, rather than without it—not as a military dictator, but as a constitutional king.

Parliament drew up a Declaration of Rights. The Founding Fathers, in fact, included some of these rights in our own Bill of Rights: the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms; the Sixth Amendment, the right to trial by jury; the Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination. The assertion of these rights by Parliament in 1689 arose from specific grievances that they had. These rights and the ability to assert them have endured, not just in Britain, but also in the United States.

It was a step forward for guaranteed liberties. It was a step forward for representative government. James II and his brother Charles II mostly ruled without Parliament. They had a sufficient income from taxes. They didn’t want Parliament messing around with their powers. William, however, called Parliament into session. Parliament asserted the right to supply money to the king, but only on a yearly basis. Parliament has met in every year since.

This was significant, because in other parts of Europe, representative assemblies were withering away. In North America, James II had abolished the representative assemblies in the New England colonies. He might have done the same, had he stayed in power, in southern colonies as well.

COLE: William surely didn’t set out to strengthen Parliament.

BARONE: No. One of William’s motives for coming over was to enlist England on the side of the Netherlands and its allies in the wars against the expansionist king, Louis XIV. Louis had been fighting major wars to expand the territory of France and his own power. He had also been persecuting Protestants and revoking edicts of toleration. At the time, France had four times the population of England. It had a much bigger army and a comparably sized navy. It was a formidable power.

William’s rule helped set the tradition in the 1690s, one that continued through the eighteenth century, of opposing expansionist tyrannical powers. That anti-tyrannical foreign policy has been a British policy, and an American policy, in the three hundred plus years since this event. Britain opposed revolutionary France and Napoleon’s France. Britain opposed, along with United States, Imperial Germany in World War I, Nazi Germany in World War II, and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. We are currently fighting, albeit it in different ways, Islamist fascists who want to destroy our civilization. Before 1688, England had remained out of continental wars for two hundred years. It stood aside.

It’s interesting that we have William III, a Dutchman, and John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, leading these struggles against expansionist France in the 1690s and 1700s. Flash forward to 1940, when the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany were allies and in control of most of the continent of Europe. They were opposed by Winston Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough’s descendent, and by Franklin Roosevelt, the descendent of Dutch settlers in New York.

COLE: What other traditions or legacies did we inherit from 1688?

BARONE: A tradition of religious tolerance.

COLE: How so?

BARONE: Most of the countries in Europe at that time had a regime of cuius regio, eius religio, which meant that the people had the same religion as the ruler. Dissent wasn’t tolerated.

The Netherlands, where William of Orange came from, had a pretty broad- ranging tolerance of different forms of worship. In formal terms, it wasn’t complete tolerance, but in practice, it was more so. William was Protestant, as was most of the country. But you also had large numbers of Catholics. In the United Provinces in the Netherlands, you had a thriving Jewish community, which provided key financing for William’s cross-Channel fleet and army.

In England, on the other hand, they fought a civil war in the 1640s, and had what amounted to a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell during much of the 1650s.

Cromwell created a military state that persecuted religious beliefs. They banned Christmas celebrations and the maypole.

That did not sit well with the English. The restoration of the king in 1660 was widely popular. While England had an established church, the Church of England, it also had a fair amount of tolerance of other Protestant sects, and there was also a lot of private Catholic worship. There were some strong anti-Catholic laws on the books, because the English felt that the Catholic powers were trying to conquer England and force them to adopt the Catholic religion. They had some warrant for believing that.

James II was a Catholic. He had come to that belief apparently by conviction. It was politically not very wise to be a Catholic ruler. He did put Catholics in as army officers, as civil officers of government, as clergy in the Church of England, and as professors at Oxford University, Magdalen College.

COLE: Wasn’t his wife Catholic as well?

BARONE: His second wife was Catholic, which didn’t help matters either.

The fear was that he would try to exert pressure or use government to try and force people to be Catholic. In his attempts to do so, he made strenuous efforts to set up elections in such a way so to get a Parliament that would do his bidding. This was seen as a violation of the free representative assembly that the English wanted Parliament to be. His opponents were against the way he was governing and in favor of tolerance. William of Orange, temperamentally, was for toleration of religion.

As part of the Glorious Revolution Settlement, Parliament passed the Toleration Act. It was not what we could consider complete religious toleration. There continued to be a Church of England and the bishops of the Church of England decided to define their faith rather narrowly. The definition didn’t include a lot of dissenting Protestants, but those dissenters could worship freely. There was free worship, in some ways, for Catholics and for Jews as well. Holding public office was limited to members of the Church of England. But in many instances, if you went to communion in the Church of England once a year, you were counted as a member, even if you attended services in another church.

And so, in practice, England built up a greater toleration than it had formerly as a result of the Revolutionary Settlement. You had the coexistence of a large number of religious faiths together with the existence of an established church supported by taxpayers. This was a principle that the Founding Fathers of the United States extended further. They said that there would be no religious test for office and that Congress shall pass no law regarding an establishment of religion.

By the way, that did not get rid of established religions. There were established churches in the states. Massachusetts and Connecticut continued to have established Congregational churches until well into the nineteenth century. But the federal government was to take no position on this.

COLE: There was a theory that we had established a state church?

BARONE: The wording of the First Amendment, I think, prohibits Congress from prohibiting an established church in a state. Now, we don’t have any instances of a state that has an established church.

COLE: It’s unlikely to happen now.

BARONE: It’s very unlikely. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is prominent in Utah and the majority of the people in that state are members of that church. The leaders of the LDS Church have asserted, over many years, that they don’t attempt to control government and that they understand that people of their faith can quite reasonably have a variety of political opinions.

In fact, the territorial government under Brigham Young in nineteenth-century Utah was probably the closest thing we’ve had to an established church. But there were religious tests for office holding in some of the states as late as the 1870s.

COLE: One other thing you talked about was the formation of capitalism. What happened in the revolution to encourage it?

BARONE: The Marquis of Halifax, who was one of the subtlest and most interesting politicians in England at this time, said that William of Orange had only come to England on his way to France.

When William became king, the English joined his fight against Louis XIV. They understood that Louis was going to fight against them, and they were determined to defend themselves by going on the offense.

But they had to pay for it. War was expensive. Parliament tried a number of ways to make money. They instituted lotteries and tontines, where the money goes to the surviving investor. One proposal called for a levy of £100,000 on the Jewish community of London. That was not accepted by Parliament.

They settled on a funded national debt and created the Bank of England, which was modeled on the Bank of Amsterdam and other banks that had been established in different parts of Europe. The Bank of England could issue currency and provide financing for investments.

People could buy, what were in effect, bonds. This enabled Britain to borrow money, at rates as low as 3 percent, to finance its wars in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. It meant that Britain, which had only a quarter or a third as many people as France, could punch even with France.

These turned out to be very important steps forward for global capitalism. In 1688, Amsterdam was a financial capital, much more important than London. But over the eighteenth century, London became much more important as a financial center and as a generator of economic innovation.

Without a system of funded national debt and the Bank of England, it’s hard to see how the industrial innovators of the eighteenth century would have been able to get financing for their efforts. The Industrial Revolution required capital and financing.

COLE: How did the Founding Fathers get their ideas or learn about the Glorious Revolution?

BARONE: They read a variety of things. Many of them read John Locke, whose Two Treatises of Government was published after the Glorious Revolution. Locke wrote his treatises before the revolution to justify action against Charles II, but they were taken by the Founders as an explanation of and a justification for the Revolution of 1688–89. Locke preached a doctrine of tolerance, of the right to resist tyranny, and to change government if you need to. He emphasized the right of private property and the independence that the possession of property, under the rule of law, give the individual.

They also read a series of publications called Cato’s Letters, which accused the government of George III of violating the rights that came down from the Glorious Revolution. In the 1760s, when the Founders were protesting the Stamp Act and other acts of the king and Parliament, they said that they were being denied rights that had been recognized by the Revolutionary Settlement.

These events amounted to a giant step forward for representative government, guaranteed liberties, global capitalism, and an anti-tyrannical foreign policy. But I’m not trying to suggest that the unfolding history of the 319 years since has been inevitable. This course could have been reversed at any time.

COLE: You talked about the Glorious Revolution as being unlikely, and I think that’s true of ours.

BARONE: It almost sends chills down my spine to think how much of our tradition of guaranteed liberties and representative government resulted from happy accidents and good luck.

The first time William of Orange sent his fleet out from the Netherlands, there’s a big storm. Some ships are destroyed. They lose five hundred horses in the North Sea. They limp back to port. Then they wait for days, something on the order of two weeks, for the wind to change, so they can sail down the English Channel. The wind was coming from the southwest, which prevented them from moving forward. William of Orange had committed much of his treasury and the best forces in his army and navy to this invasion—and he had to wait for the wind. It must’ve been agonizing waiting in November, with the nights growing longer and the days growing shorter. Then they suddenly got from the east what they called “the Protestant wind.” William’s ships sail down the English Channel unopposed to Torbay, in the southwest of England. The same wind that helped William, bottled up the English fleet at the Thames. The ships couldn’t sail out and oppose him.

After they’ve landed and accomplished the unlikely task of crossing the Channel, William of Orange, who is a Calvinist and believes in predestination, turns to the Reverend Gilbert Burnet, an Anglican clergyman who was with him on the invasion and says, “Well, Mr. Burnet, what do you think of predestination now?”

Some people in this country like to criticize those who say that our system is a uniquely good system and that the United States, in many ways, has led the world in freedom and democracy. I think those are statements that can be defended simply as a matter of fact. It’s not because we, who live today, are uniquely good or uniquely wise. Rather we stand on the shoulders of giants. We stand on the good fortune that those giants prevailed in situations and circumstances in which it was very far from clear that they would do so.

COLE: Well, that’s a great note to end on. Thank you for talking with us.

BARONE: It’s been my pleasure.