A Misunderstood Icon
The fifth of November is a day celebrated by radicals who generally do not understand its historical significance. Most of them see the Guy Fawkes masks and the Gunpowder Plot, popularized by the film V for Vendetta, as a symbol of freedom and a blow against tyranny.
It has become a sartorial Rorschach test: people's perceptions of what it represents diverge based on their own conceptions of liberty and justice. Recently, Occupiers have made the Guy Fawkes mask their unofficial costume. A few years ago, it was seen as a libertarian symbol. The political Romantics in each of these movements who celebrate the Gunpowder Plot are gravely mistaken. The fifth of November historically marked a celebration of the failure of the plot, not the plot itself. And that is how it should be. The thwarting of the plot allowed for the greatest moment in the history of human liberty on the very same day, 82 years later: the Glorious Revolution.
The Gunpowder Plot
In 1606, the English began a tradition of celebrating the fifth of November with bonfires and public revelry to mark the anniversary of the infamous Gunpowder Plot. On the fifth of November 1605, 13 English Catholics sought to assassinate King James I, other members of the Royal Family, and members of the House of Lords and House of Commons by detonating several tons of gunpowder stored in the vaults beneath Parliament.
If they had succeeded in blowing up Parliament, the Gunpowder Plot would have gone down in history as the most brazen modern act of terrorism and left both England and Scotland in complete disarray. The authorities intercepted a letter that tipped them off to the plot, and they found Guy Fawkes -- now the most famous conspirator -- tending to the barrels of gunpowder in the cellar beneath the House of Lords.
Fawkes met his fate on the gallows soon after. James I undertook no political repression against Catholics, but the Gunpowder Plot only reinforced the Protestant belief that Catholicism threatened both English liberty and sovereignty: despotic government and the threat of Continental invasion. Later in the century, James II converted to Catholicism before becoming King and set the stage for the Glorious Revolution.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the English Bill of Rights
On June 30, 1688, the Convention Parliament invited William of Orange to invade England and depose James II, that Stuart despot. Through a curious coincidence, William made landfall in England on November 5, 1688, what British historian David Starkey called "another auspicious day for Protestants" (the other being the day England was delivered from the Gunpowder Plot).
James II soon after fled into exile rather than fight to retain the Crown. Parliament had thus spearheaded this bloodless Glorious Revolution. Parliament took the extraordinary step of declaring the Crown vacant (which broke with the philosophy that the "Sovereign never dies") and deemed James II to have abdicated the throne. Through the "Act declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown," the Crown-in-Parliament (King, Lords, Commons) made William III & Mary II co-monarchs and secured the Glorious Revolution for posterity.
This English Bill of Rights, as it is more commonly known, laid the foundation for constitutional
monarchy and forever demolished the Royal Supremacy of the Tudors and the Divine Right of the Stuarts. Parliament would now control the succession through statute law and ensure that the Sovereign and Head of the Church be in communion with the Church of England. Through the Bill of Rights, Parliament reasserted "its ancient rights and liberties" and declared itself the sovereign law-making power by ensuring that the King could no longer suspend or invalidate statute through the prerogative powers. The King could now only raise money and maintain a standing army during peacetime with parliamentary approval. It also guaranteed the privileges of parliamentarians and their freedom of speech.
The Glorious Revolution marked the emergence of modern liberal constitutionalism, and it officially began when William's army landed on English soil on the Fifth of November 1688. William fought to oust the emerging personal rule of James II and to secure liberty, while that theocratic terrorist Guy Fawkes sought to destroy the prospects for political liberty in a fiery explosion.
We Should Remember the 5th of November 1688
Americans think of the War of Independence from Britain as a watershed moment for human liberty, and the Tea Party in particular have romanticized the American Revolution. Their romanticization of the American Revolution depends upon monarchy as an inherently despotic form of government and the Declaration of Independence as the origin of liberty. In reality, the British Americans transplanted the liberal-constitutional principles of the Glorious Revolution into British North America, where they found fertile soil.
The preamble of the Bill of Rights even contains a list of grievances against James II similar to the grievances against George III contained in the Declaration. The Glorious Revolution is the true watershed moment, and should be celebrated as such.
Both left-wing and right-wing Romantics misinterpret the historical events that inspire them: Occupy misunderstands the Gunpowder Plot, and Tea Partiers misunderstand the American Revolution. We should celebrate the true liberal-constitutional legacy of the fifth of November, King William III, and the English Bill of Rights and reject this puerile romanticization of the theocratic terrorist revolutionary Guy Fawkes.
I choose to remember the fifth of November for the Glorious Revolution, which demolished absolute and arbitrary monarchy and laid the foundation for a constitutional system of representative and responsible government that has made freedom and prosperity throughout the English speaking world possible. We should all also raise a glass to England's deliverance from theocracy through the capture of the knave, Guy Fawkes, and his treasonous co-conspirators.
The author would like to thank Steve Lafleur for suggesting the idea behind the article and for providing him with helpful advice on an early draft.