History as soap opera, and the Constitution

Published 2:48 pm Friday, April 2, 2010

What taught our Founding Fathers of the necessity of having a system of checks and balances?

How did they learn that it was never good for citizens when one part of the government became too powerful?

Quite simply, they knew their soap operas.

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Soap operas existed long before Victor Newman appeared on “Young and the Restless” or Reeva Shane drove off of a bridge on “Guiding Light.” They weren’t televised, but rather played out within the walls of the British Parliament and between the members of the royal family in 17th century England.

Though history can sometimes be dull and boring, the events of Stuart England were neither—and had a profound impact on the minds that later shaped our Constitution.

King James I, ruler of England from 1603 to 1625, fought constantly with Parliament over the nation’s purse strings, specifically over the ability to tax. He led a lavish lifestyle and needed to be able to control the money that supported his parties and other unmentionable habits. Maintaining an incredible influence in the country, he dismissed the Parliament for over a decade, ruling by fiat. The King had too much power.

Charles I’s reign began upon his father’s death in 1625. He was not as capable as his father, exasperating tensions with Parliament to the point of civil war. The pendulum of power favored the Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, who executed Charles in early 1649. Cromwell and his son, Richard, then ruled for a period of 11 years that was marked by bloodshed and heavy-handed authoritarianism. This time, the Parliament had become too powerful.

The soap opera really picked up in 1660, as many of the same people who supported the Parliament’s decapitation of Charles I now experienced regret—and invited Charles II, the son of Charles I, back from exile to rule.

Charles II returned and, wanting revenge, put Oliver Cromwell on trial for crimes against the state. Cromwell, it must be pointed out, had been dead for two years! He (the corpse, that is) was put on trial and, after having been found guilty, hanged! The pendulum of power had swung back to the King.

After Charles II died without any children, the throne fell to his younger brother, James II (1685-1688). James II was a Catholic at a time when hatred for Catholics was very real. England, nonetheless, waited patiently for James to die, as he had no son, which meant that the throne would pass to his Protestant daughter, Mary.

If you were to read what happened next, it would indeed seem like a soap opera. James II faked his wife’s pregnancy, meaning the baby would secure a reign of Catholic monarchs for possibly centuries to come.

Parliament would have none of this, inviting Mary and her husband, King William of Holland, to invade. A daughter attacking her own father? Yes—with Parliament’s invitation!

William and Mary arrived in England and drove James II into exile. William secured power by signing the British Bill of Rights of 1689, which protected the citizens against a powerful ruler and is one of the inspirations for our Bill of Rights.