Literature Opinion

IA Book Club: Two Revolutions and the Constitution

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Julie McNeill reviews a story by James D R Philips of revolutionary American progress from British colonies to a new nation founded on the world's first written Constitution.

Two Revolutions and the Constitution would have been useful in my 1980 HSC subject of American Studies. The subtitle ‘How the English and American Revolutions Produced the American Constitution’ attracted me as the English Revolution is the setting of my novel work-in-progress.

American lawyer and visiting lecturer at Sydney Law School, James Philips, has written an informative read. You can tell he is a teacher who is engaging with the topic.

Our class teacher limited us to his favourite novel set in Puritan Boston of 1642, The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, about the shame of an unwed mother.

Reading both books would be worthwhile if you want to understand how America’s foundational document was formed. Two Revolutions is a slim book but not devoid of comment on the absence of women and slavery. If you want to delve deeper into the tug-of-war in the 17th Century, there is now a wonderful world wide web of resources.

The Stuart Royalists believed in a divine right to rule by heredity. Westminster Parliamentarians wanted more power as King John’s barons achieved with the Magna Carta in 1215.

Unfair laws of taxation without representation were a common grievance against Charles I and his later successor George III over a hundred years later. Coercive reactions by both Monarchs only incited rebels to fight for self-determination.

Most teenagers will empathise with the internal conflicts between independence and stability. Today, many are familiar with the American Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence via Hollywood and global news channels — freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms, separation of powers between Church and State.

Born in Britain, my husband and I felt cheated by the school curriculum in 1950’s Leeds and 1970’s Birmingham. Our ignorance of the English Civil Wars and the English Republic’s Head of State Oliver Cromwell was embarrassing.

Why would Westminster keep it from us? My primary school motto tapped my memory bank: ‘Knowledge is Power.’

The battlefields of Crown and Parliament had been all around us. They would have made an excellent excursion. My labouring ancestors could have put down their scythes and horse nails to make muskets and pikes in the villages surrounding Birmingham.

The author cites the value placed upon literacy by the colonists. News from home sailed in and was freely discussed in halls, churches and homes.

The desire to go back to the Mother Country and join the New Model Army was hard to resist for some. One of Cromwell’s Chaplains, Hugh Peter, had a role in setting up the University of Harvard, then commuted back to the frontline, including Ireland, to rouse the troops.

The War of Independence was outside the door of the “framers” of the American Constitution. The author comments that ‘key players used the language and theories of some political philosophers (Locke and Montesquieu)... Thomas Jefferson was famously a Lockean versed in social contract theory.’

There are useful endnotes and a bibliography with this book. The author makes special mention the springboard to this whole subject was Geoffrey Robertson QC’s book, The Tyrannicide Brief.

I do feel that Mr Philips left some relevant information out. The “framers” were inspired by grassroots characters such as the prolific works of John Lilburne, haberdasher, soldier and leader of the Levellers.

He created many headaches for authorities for which he was whipped and thrown in the Tower of London (where he wrote many pamphlets and smuggled them out). I think his contribution to civil rights and the American Constitution should be remembered.

He made legal history in Common Law and the American Constitution by the developments of court procedures, trial by jury and establishing the right not to self-incriminate.

Incredibly, being dragged into the secretive Star Chamber caused its abolishment. For me, the radical John Lilburne’s work on the Act of Habeas Corpus (1640) stands the test of time about wrongful imprisonment.

Also worthy of mention is the egalitarian positivity displayed at St Mary’s Church, Putney in 1647 where the manifesto An Agreement of the People set out constitutional changes, whereby sovereign power should reside in the people, not an absolute monarchy, in common with the American Republicans in 1776 and beyond.

The Agreement presented in Putney’s church hall by another Leveller, Thomas Rainsborough, MP of Wapping, proposed all 21-year-old males were entitled to vote, but even revolutionaries dismissed the women.

8,000 women signed petitions and marched on Whitehall demanding an equal vote. These were the first Suffragettes.

I recommend this book for all students of Humanities who are faced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s downgrades and funding cuts to their education.

As celebrity philosopher of the day, Thomas Paine, once said:

“A patriot must be ready to defend his country from his government.”

Two Revolutions and the Constitution is available from Booktopia for $29.95 (paperback) RRP.

This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.

Julie McNeill has been researching 17th Century Britain and writing a Civil War and Commonwealth story on discovering her great grandparents were Roundheads.

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IA Book Club: Two Revolutions and the Constitution

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