The United Kingdom officially left the European Union just days before the U.S. Senate voted to acquit President Trump on articles of impeachment. While these two events may appear to have little in common, they both have links to early eighteenth-century Britain, an era when governmental checks and balances and international cooperation were political ideals just gaining momentum, rather than founding principles increasingly ignored by those in power.
As the start of the eighteenth century, fresh in everyone’s memory in England was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which Parliament asserted its power over the monarchy by replacing the Catholic monarch James II with the Protestant monarchs William and Mary. When Queen Anne (Mary’s younger sister) took the throne in 1702, she was careful to show deference to Parliament. Even when Parliament impeached a Tory clergyman for preaching and publishing a sermon touting passive obedience to the Queen, she supported Parliament’s right to impeach her supporter.
Members of Parliament and the House of Lords, along with the monarch, sat for hours at a stretch on uncomfortable oak benches, during several weeks of testimony in a drafty Westminster Hall. The MPs and Lords, alongside hundreds of spectators, listened in rapt silence day after day to the impeachment managers and witnesses. The visible respect everyone showed in 1710 for this traditional English procedure of impeachment stands in contrast to U.S. Senators last month who acted out their boredom with fidget spinners. The Whigs in Parliament, moreover, had impeached the clergyman merely for preaching against the abstract principle of political resistance; he was convicted and banned from preaching for three years. Had he been accused of directly soliciting foreign interference, his punishment would have been much more severe. It was, after all, fear of foreign interference from the powerful Catholic French monarch Louis XIV that had inspired the Whigs to oust the Catholic English monarch James II through the Glorious Revolution.
Three decades after the Glorious Revolution, the Whigs further stabilized the Protestant line of monarchy with the 1707 Act of Union, which joined the Kingdom of England to the Kingdom of Scotland, forming the nation of Great Britain. The union was not initially popular in Scotland, but it did secure certain advantages for each nation (giving Scotland trading rights in English colonies and securing the Protestant succession to a joint crown). Yet this union, another vestige of the reign of Queen Anne, is today at risk: the possibility of Scotland voting to leave Great Britain has increased following Brexit, since the vast majority of Scottish citizens would have preferred to remain in the E.U. Whether or not the advantages of the Union outweigh the disadvantages, it has been for 300 years a functioning and flexible arrangement that offered something to both sides. The Scottish people, many of whom have never been thrilled about their union with a more powerful England, nevertheless clearly appreciate the value of international governmental structures, hence their vote to remain in the E.U.
The European Union itself, based in ideals of international cooperation, also has roots in the eighteenth-century. The 1714 Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of Spanish Succession, contained language asserting that peace could only be preserved if a balance of power was maintained in Europe. While wars would be fought between European nations for another two and a half centuries, this language nevertheless inaugurated an idea of European cooperation that is now central to the modern European Union.
By modern political standards, there is much not to like about life in the early eighteenth-century: slavery and the slave trade were still legal; less than three percent of the British population could vote; married women could not own their own property; bribes and nepotism were standard practices for securing jobs. But the reign of Queen Anne also marked a moment when Britain understood the need for its monarch to be checked by Parliament. When the American colonies rebelled against Great Britain six decades later, the colonists complained eloquently in the Declaration of Independence about the tyranny of George III, but their complaints were aimed at Parliamentary, not monarchical, policies of taxation without representation. The colonists’ demands for their own representative government were for a government that would mirror the checks and balances of government in Great Britain. They would improve upon the British system by having no branch of power with inherited titles (as in the House of Lords) and having no monarch.
When the young American republic added the office of president to its government in 1787, it did so only after adding an impeachment clause to prevent any president from acting like a monarch. Now that Senate Republicans have ceased taking seriously the power check of impeachment (by refusing to call a single relevant witness), we may find ourselves unexpectedly taken back to an earlier era of unchecked power, for example, to an era like mid seventeenth-century England, before the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Of course, Parliament’s response to the tyrannical Charles I in 1649 was not to replace him with a different monarch, but to execute him. By diminishing the power and precedent of impeachment, Senate Republicans may yet unleash greater forces of resistance to the unchecked power of a president who imagines himself a monarch.
*Rachel Carnell, professor of English at Cleveland State University, is an expert on British literature and it’s connection to politics and culture. She is the author of Backlash: Libel, Impeachment, and Populism in the Reign of Queen Anne, forthcoming from University of Virginia Press, and co-editor of The Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820, published by Cambridge University Press.