In the aftermath of the American election, media outlets, not just fringe media but mainstream outlets, have published articles on the slow escalation of American politics and society towards a second civil war. After Marine Le Pen’s abysmal performance in the French run-off election, a common Twitter sentiment was the countdown for the French to have a civil war.
The problem with these declarations is the assessment where this rebellious sentiment would come from: bottom-up, as opposed to top-down.
Civil conflict comes when an element of the elite believe that its status, comfort, and security is threatened. Once threatened, elites can signal downward to different segments of society they have control of or share allegiance with to spark conflict.
Disgruntled citizens cannot just march on Rome and spark a civil conflict or create change. America’s Bonus Army episode did not spark wider protest or conflict. A better example of how civil conflict brews, and why it can escalate to removing a sovereign or system, is found in the short reign of James II of England.
Covered here at Social Matter by Fritz Pendleton, the Glorious Revolution removed James II in 1688. James II succeeded his brother Charles II, who had successfully found a way to marginalize Parliament through cultivating a strong relationship with the Church of England and receiving financial support from his cousin Louis XIV of France. Charles II had supported the rebuilding of the Church of England, which allowed a bloc of support to form while he secretly slid over to Catholicism. The financial support from France allowed Charles to dissolve parliament in 1681 and rule alone. Charles II and James II both wanted to model an English monarchy along French lines in form (absolutism) and spirit (Catholicism).
Prior to James II’s ascension, there was a bitter fight over what was called the Exclusion Bill. The entire bill was a move by a group that would become the Whigs to exclude Catholics from the throne. This was all about maintaining Protestant power. Charles had no legitimate heir, so his broker, a Catholic, would become king and also, awkwardly, the head of the Church of England. James II’s ascension to the throne was a loss for the Whigs in parliament, and many stewed in their anger in the Netherlands.
The tension in England was consistent for years, but everything accelerated in 1687. As Fritz writes,
In 1687, James issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which extended freedom of worship to all religions in England and removed religious constraints for government service. Parliament, which was mostly Protestant, was livid. It was not the religious toleration that made them petulantly want to kick over the whole political pot, these are the precursors to universalists, after all; it was the second part of the proclamation that angered them, the part that gave the king the ability to fill his government with Catholics again. Perhaps this is because Catholicism represented the one thing that could reverse the powers that Parliament had so generously granted itself over the past century: in the minds of most Englishmen, Catholicism was tied to absolutism.
A year later, James ordered that the Church of England read his Declaration from their pulpits, to remind church-goers that they no longer had to partake in the Anglican communion. The foul effect of this proclamation cannot be underestimated. James had not only ordered the Anglican Church to sever its hand from its wrist, he then ordered that the Church itself must do the cutting. The Anglicans were done dancing to James’s tune. Seven senior bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke out against James and penned a furious petition calling for him to rescind his Declaration on the grounds that it was illegal. James in turn sued them for seditious libel. The seven bishops were acquitted in court and James looked to all the nation like a hot-headed fool.
The second cause for the coming revolution was much simpler. James had had two daughters with his first wife, Mary and Anne, both of whom were Protestants. This kept Parliament docile and content because it figured that no matter how much it despised James, once Mary became queen and brought her Protestant husband along from the Netherlands (the previously mentioned William of Orange), any damage that James had done could be easily reversed by his daughter.
The one kink in this plan was that James’s second wife, a Catholic, had become pregnant. The royal couple intended to raise the new child in the Catholic Church and they very foolishly told everyone of this intention. Parliament was tense. If James’s wife gave birth to a girl, Parliament could rest easy because according to royal inheritance laws, the crown would still pass to the eldest daughter, Mary. But fate, providence, chance, or whatever else you might call it, intervened on behalf of the Catholic cause when a baby boy was born in June, 1688. The child was christened ‘James Francis Edward’ by his father.
Pendleton lays out the immediate reasons for the Glorious Revolution. One can easily see the fast succession of changes James II wanted to impose on the elites of England and how fast they reacted. In April of 1687, James II is issuing the Declaration of Indulgence, and before winter of 1688, James II had been deposed.
This was not the first attempt to replace James II, but it was the attempt that succeeded. The same frustrations and tension were present in 1685 when the failed Monmouth Rebellion occurred. The illegitimate child of Charles II, the Duke of Monmouth, was used as the Protestant figurehead for the rebellion to place a Protestant on the English throne again. Similar to the later Glorious Revolution, a Protestant male was supported by Whigs in exile, with press pushing for him while sniping at James II. Similar to William’s adventure, he led a small force that landed on the coast of England. The military difference was that James II commanded loyalty of the armed forces and easily destroyed the Monmouth-led force. Monmouth was executed and the rebellion suppressed.
The Monmouth Rebellion failed because too few elites were truly threatened by James II. It was 1685. Without a male heir, the throne would transition to a Protestant female after his death. The machinery of the state was still held by Protestants. The Church of England was still being supported and allowed to reign spiritually supreme on the island. Different factions of the elite of England could view James as a temporary hindrance to their control of England.
This all changed with the political moves Pendleton outlined. James II had won victories in the courts prior to his Declaration Act, allowing him to go after the Church of England. James accumulated enemies in high places with each move. The true deal-breaker or lit match was the birth of a male heir. By rules of succession, the Catholic James II would be succeeded by a very young James III (James II was 55 at the time of James III’s birth). With the powers that James II was grasping, the money that he was receiving from France, in addition to the use of Catholic soldiers, James III could continue, entrench, and expand James II’s moves for reforming the English government and even the potential reconversion of the island.
The Glorious Revolution with William of Orange at the head looks incredibly similar to the structure of the Monmouth Rebellion. William of Orange had ties to the royal house, he was a Protestant, and he had major support from foreign press, as well as financial support from men eager to establish the Bank of England. William had bona fides as a fighter against Louis XIV. William was also steeped in the Dutch stadt experiment in republican government with the reduced role of the sovereign and strength of the parliament.
The major difference between failure and success, though, were the assembled factions of the elite that supported William’s endeavor, versus the Duke of Monmouth’s. Enough factions were threatened to not only spark civil conflict and change but to make it so smooth it has another name: the Bloodless Revolution.
For those in the West seeing potential civil conflicts, it’s imperative to review exactly who is threatened and how. The more infighting between the elite, the greater the likelihood of conflict. As shown in the case of James II’s reign, open fighting is not needed–merely the future removal of power, loss of status or erosion of security and comfort is enough to spark a fire.