Calvin Beisner is associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and is completing a Ph.D. in late-seventeenth-century British history and political thought.
It was mid-November 1688. King James II of England, heir to his father’s and grandfather’s beliefs in royal absolutism, was desperate. Nobles and gentry of his kingdom had invited his son-in-law Prince William of Orange to intervene for the preservation of a free parliament and the Protestant religion. James was meeting with a group of bishops of the Church of England. It was his last chance to influence these clerics, and they were the last men who might possibly persuade the English people to support James against William, who with a force of 15,000 men had just landed at Torbay.
All the king asked of the bishops was that they make a public statement that, contrary to William’s declaration, they had not taken part in the invitation to William. (In fact, one of them had.) But the bishops refused on the grounds that the declaration alleged to be William’s might be a forgery and that even if it were genuine, it was unfair to press them alone to disavow it, since that would raise suspicions that they were uniquely suspect. King James was beside himself. “Must I not be believed?” he asked in frustration. He desperately needed his people to believe that William had no support among the country’s leaders.
One of the bishops suggested that since they already had denied to him privately any involvement in the invitation to William, James could simply report that denial publicly. “No!” cried the king. “If I should publish it, the people would not believe me!”
That was precisely the point. James had lost credibility with his people for two reasons. First, he had been caught in manifest lies time after time. Second, he had declared himself above the law, even packing a court to ensure that it would rule that “the laws of England are the laws of the King of England. . . . [T]he king of England or any sovereign prince upon urgent occasions & necessities may dispense with any penal laws of their dominion. . . . [T]he king is sole judge of the necessities & urgency of these occasions upon which they may dispense with the laws. . . . [T]he king’s power is in himself independent of any & not entrusted of any & not entrusted to them from the people of England.”
Now, with William’s invasion, James more than anything else needed credibility. The survival of his reign depended on it. His troops’ willingness to fight for his reign depended on it. Lacking it, he watched as regiment after regiment of the army, ship after ship of the navy, either simply refused to fight or actually changed allegiance and joined William. Within a month, and with hardly a battle fought, James—who had begun with superior forces—found himself stripped of all ability to defend himself and his kingdom, and was forced to abdicate, fleeing to France. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 was brought on, and consummated, by the simple fact that the people of Great Britain did not trust their king.
When President Bill Clinton, one day before a scheduled House vote on impeachment, ordered air attacks on Iraq, some Republican congressional leaders, like millions of American citizens, broke with the tradition of supporting the president in foreign military action and clearly spoke their own incredulity at both the policy and its timing. Nothing Clinton could say could eliminate the doubts. Why?
Because, like King James II, President Clinton had lost his credibility. Repeated lies, even under oath, and his attempts to use “executive privilege” to shield himself from the normal application of the laws had combined to demonstrate that he was not—and is not—to be trusted. That is why it is tragic that the impeachment process was not permitted to end in a bona fide trial. Such a trial, unlike the sham proceedings that took place, was necessary to either exonerate the president of the charges against him and restore his credibility or to convict him and remove him from office so that a new president can govern with credibility. As it turned out, we are left with a president crippled by his own dishonesty—and a nation potentially crippled along with him.