The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones says 1619 is the proper founding year of the United States because that is the year the first African slaves came to the New World. The 1619 Project makes her case. The Times doesn’t even do the present very well, never mind its hot-take on history.
Too bad Jones is wrong and her case is fatally flawed. Not about the year, she got that right. She’s just wrong about its significance in the course of America’s founding. For one thing, the United States as a thing did not exist and had not been thought of in 1619. North America was not united in any way, it was divided among several European colonial powers and the indigenous people, who were themselves divided into many tribes. There were no states and nothing much was united on these shores.
1619 was important but it wasn’t the pivotal year. The Puritans, the scoldy-wokes of their day, wouldn’t even land in America until more than a decade later, 1630. The Puritans back in England were banning and purging everything and driving the country to its breaking point, while those in America sought to stamp out fun in the new colonies. Christopher Columbus, the much-maligned expert Italian navigator who explored on behalf of the Spanish crown and found the New World, er, a while after the Vikings did, had already been dead and gone for over a century.
1492 and 1630 are more significant years for the founding of America than 1619. But neither is as significant in the stream of ideas and human rights as 1641. It was in that year that King Charles I went head to head with John Pym, leader of the Puritan faction in the House of Commons. For a stretch of a couple of months in late 1641 and early 1642, Pym and Charles went eyeball to eyeball and took England up to and over the brink of civil war. But we have to go back a few years to understand why they clashed.
Charles was of the “divine right” school of kingship. He believed that he was God’s chosen leader for England. Kings tended to like this line of thinking; their subjects, not so much. Pym was elected to Parliament in 1621. The “Puritan purge” was a thing. They waged the original “war on Christmas.” Today, the Puritans might accurately be called “Karens.” If you were having any fun anywhere, Puritans wanted you stopped. And possibly executed. They weren’t playing around. It was against their religion.
In 1629, King Charles dissolved Parliament because he could. He would keep it shut until he needed it to raise funds for wars in 1640 and 1641. Let’s lay a marker on that.
The roots of the struggle between Pym and Charles were part civic and part religious. England had an official state religion, the (Protestant) Church of England, headed by the crown. Pym was a Puritan, narrow-minded, tunnel-visioned, and a buzzkill. Charles had married French princess Henrietta Maria as his queen, but she was Catholic. If there was one thing Puritans hated more than a good joke or a nice holiday drink, it was Rome.
The marriage raised suspicions that the queen was trying to convert the king to Rome. She probably was. She’d asked to be crowned queen by a Catholic bishop in Protestant England, a request which Charles turned down. Henrietta had brought several Catholic attenders with her from France, whom Charles eventually expelled. She was always controversial, and some of her critics called her “Queen Mary,” referring to the Stuart and Catholic Queen Mary who was also known as “Bloody Mary.” So, it wasn’t a compliment. Charles’ real love for her hurt him with Pym’s Puritans.
To understand the problem with having a Catholic queen and the possibility of converting the king, we have to go back another 100 years or so to the reign of King Henry VIII. In 1533, Henry, who was equal parts king, tyrant, and enthroned serial killer, broke with the pope so he could divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. She had failed to produce a male heir to the throne. Henry was the second Tudor king, and his position would be unstable until he had a male heir. The Church did not allow him to divorce, and there was politics involved in that.
Henry broke with Rome, or, rather, Rome broke with Henry when it was discovered he had secretly married Anne Boleyn. Henry established the Church of England, of which he was the head, and allowed himself to divorce Catherine. Being king has its advantages. It also has its disadvantages — nearly 20 rulers in the British Isles have been assassinated or executed. Several others were killed in battle.
Since Henry’s time, England remained Protestant, and Catholicism was frowned upon but had not disappeared. The (Catholic) Gunpowder Plot in 1605 (famous now for Guy Fawkes masks and “Remember, remember the 5th of November”) raised the specter of religious assassination and a coup in England, further dividing Catholics and Protestants apart. Puritans, including Pym, were always looking for a papist plot under every rock.
England was by no means alone in religious strife. The Protestant Reformation had been bubbling around Europe causing wars since the 1500s. John Calvin had ruled Geneva as a dictator, which no one saw coming, in the 1540s. There were massacres and counter-massacres, burnings at stakes—it was a pretty sketchy time to be alive in Europe. Even before the Reformation, someone in Europe was usually fighting someone else. Hence, many wanted to bug out for the New World. It was the Belize of the age, a place to get away from all the noise, but with more hostile wildlife and other dangers.
We have to take all this into account when we look at 1641, and how the upstarts in America saw things in their time. They weren’t standing on the shoulders of giants, but they were looking back at centuries of war and piles of dead and precedents for bringing bad kings and queens to heel. They had the Magna Carta of 1215, which established some basic rights and jurisprudence, and the various kingly proclamations and declarations of rights of the English, generally issued under threats of civil war, before and after that. They also had John Locke and the concept of natural rights bridging the time of the Pym vs. Charles showdown to their own.
The battle between John Pym and King Charles I came to a head when, on the one hand, Pym had the Commons pass the Grand Remonstrance on November 22, 1641, and on the other hand, Charles remained aloof, inept and pigheaded. The Grand Remonstrance was a list of roughly 200 of Parliament’s grievances against the king, the ultimate list of why we are never, ever, ever getting back together. Charles managed to suppress it temporarily, but its eventual publication forced him to respond. Pym outmaneuvered Charles at every turn, like Garry Kasparov taking on the local high school chess club president. He could have had fun with it all, but since he was a Puritan, he didn’t allow himself to. Fun was forbidden.
The Grand Remonstrance made several valid points, among them that Charles had run roughshod over the people’s rights when he dissolved Parliament and left it dormant for more than a decade, and when he taxed them without approval while he kept Parliament on the sidelines. The Grand Remonstrance also dealt with religious issues, accusing the Jesuits of scheming to turn England back over to Rome, which, to be fair, they were. That was a bigger deal then than it would be now.
Put markers on the Grand Remonstrance, Charles’ taxation without the approval of the people’s representatives, and Charles’ ability to temporarily suppress publication of the Grand Remonstrance because there was no freedom of the press in 17th-century England. Also, lay a marker on Pym’s wins: He worked outside the law to force the king to execute his ally, the Earl of Strafford, and he got the king to agree that Parliament could dissolve itself. One of Charles’ powers went away. As did one of his strongest allies. Pym also used mobs to whip up fear in London, which he used to persuade wavering members of Parliament to do his bidding. Pym later saw to it that those mobs were turned into the Roundhead army, loyal to Parliament.
The fact that the Remonstrances passed the House of Commons because the king’s supporters were largely absent from Parliament was also key. Parliament met in London. Most of the king’s loyalists were out in the countryside, afraid to enter the capital because the plague was sweeping through the city. Had there been no plague, the king’s men would have been in London where they could vote, and the Grand Remonstrance would not have passed. Pym cynically used their absence to tilt the vote his way. There were no heroes in all this, which the American founders would also remember.
So far, we’ve put markers down on these points:
- Charles unilaterally dissolved Parliament (as was his right up to this point)
- England had an official and divisive state religion
- Taxation without representation
- A list of grievances lodged against the king for behaving like a tyrant
- A lack of regular and orderly meetings of the people’s elected representatives
- The ability to use any means including mobs and a deadly plague to tilt the scales in favor of a faction that might not be a majority otherwise
- No free press
Here’s more to ponder. Charles tried to have Pym arrested, and even personally went to the House of Commons to do it, but failed because Pym had been tipped off by someone close to the queen. He tried a show of force by summoning cannoneers to the Tower of London, but that only stirred Parliament and the London city government to shore up their own defenses against him. Soon enough the king had his army and Parliament had its army, the Cavaliers and the Roundheads respectively. When you have two armies led by two enemies on the same soil, there’s bound to be some shooting. There was, for about nine years.
Pym died in December 1643 but his clash with Charles and the king’s failures led to bloody civil wars, hundreds of thousands dead, the beheading of Charles with an executioner’s ax, and to a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. “Lord Protector” for life Cromwell was a joyless Puritan scold of a king in all but name and when he died of a likely urinary tract infection in 1659, after some additional chaos, the English couldn’t figure out a way to improve their lot so they asked if Charles’ son wouldn’t mind coming back from exile and stepping in. Please? We promise not to chop off your head…
Charles’ son, Charles II, became king in 1661. Cromwell’s body was dug up from Westminster Abbey and beheaded. His grisly, severed head was put on display for the next 20 years. Point made.
Charles II picked up where Charles I left off, encouraging the arts and restoring England’s place as a world power, and a monarchy in which Parliament at least did meet more regularly. Other than that, it had all been, basically, for nothing. Charles I — chaotic interregnum — then Charles II. England was no republic. Charles was no hero. Pym was no hero. Cromwell was no hero. England, Ireland, and Scotland had all invaded each other and been used against each other. And Charles II ended up converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. Take that, Puritans! The battle royale hadn’t really solved anything.
But a little over a century later, some very astute and well-educated leaders of English heritage on the other side of the Atlantic had serious issues with the king, George III. The long weeks in 1641-1642, the civil wars, the grim fate of Charles, the piles of dead, the role of state religion, the right of self-defense against government, the lack of freedom of the press, the ability to misuse circumstances to tilt government toward factions, the Cromwell dictatorship, the abuses of power by all concerned, and the utter pointlessness of it all surely informed the Continental Congress as they determined what to do and how to keep their heads away from gallows. “Let’s avoid all that, shall we?” was surely the subtext of most if not all their deliberations.
They wanted to avoid as much as possible the problems and conflicts that dragged England into its civil wars. They wanted to enshrine natural rights and equality. They did not want a monarchy or anything resembling Puritanism, Pym, or Cromwell. A tyrannical king was top of mind, and they wrote down their 27 grievances against George III in the form of a Declaration of Independence, issued July 4, 1776. The Constitution they wrote after the Revolution sought to correct the issues that led up to and fueled the bloody English civil wars. For instance: regular and predictable meetings of the congress; an elected, not hereditary, head of state; checks and balances between three co-equal branches of government.
They also had the pernicious shame of slavery to deal with, which they had inherited from 150 years of colonial rule, and in which some of them participated. They handled it in the form of compromises in the Constitution not well understood today from the perspective of the time. Escaped slave Frederick Douglass later came to see those compromises as instruments that demanded freedom for all, in what he called the “glorious liberty document.” Denouncing the founders today for not solving an intractable problem that predated them on the continent by more than a century, and worldwide since the beginning of time, seems hardly fair.
When George Washington left office after eight years as elected president, not a king or “Lord Protector,” surely the fate of Cromwell, the failure to progress, and the future of natural rights and liberty were on his mind. Washington’s voluntary exit and the peaceful transfer of power to another elected president under the established Constitution changed everything.
Some anti-royalists involved in England’s civil wars said they wanted a republic. They never got it. But by March 4, 1797, when Washington departed public life, America had one.