Revolution and “Revolutions”

Yesterday April 27th was the 377th anniversary of King Charles I’s flight from Oxford to take refuge with the Scottish Army in the North during the English Civil War. The Protestant New Model Army was circling in on him, so he cut his hair and beard so that he wouldn’t look like a Van Dyck portrait, disguised himself as a servant, and slipped out the back, jack.

This date stuck in my mind because one of the mind-expanding pleasures of passing the time commuting by car these past four years has been has been listening to podcasts – and my favorite one of those by far has been Mike Duncan’s Revolutions.

Reading history comes much easier to me than reading fiction, and Duncan is an exemplar of a type of history lecturer: thorough, even-paced, and eminently fair. His flatness makes you lean toward your speaker whenever his inflections becomes the slightest bit…inflected, and he’s scrupulous about the difference between widely-accepted facts and the interpretations he favors.

His narratives also include a steady drip of irony, most of it regarding the bumbling of leadership. One of the great themes of Revolutions, in Mike Duncan’s telling, is common to all revolutions, from the English, to the American and French, Haitian and Russian, and that’s the failure of leadership, both civilian and military. I learned history, like most people my age, under the long shadow of Marx. I was taught to always look for the materialist essence of events: who was economically ascendant or in the decline, and how did that expressed itself in the culture and politics on the surface. Duncan is plenty aware of this too, but he makes a convincing case, time and again, that unforced errors on the part of leaders are what mark these earthquakes in time we end up calling revolutions.

On rare occasions Duncan makes an actual joke, and when he does he is howlingly funny, like his episode in the French Revolution in which he describes the death of the Comte de Mirabeau and its effect on the National Assembly as it was winding up its business in the spring of 1791. The first Revolutionary hero to be interred in the very weird monument The Pantheon, where, Duncan says, he is resting to this day. “Naww, I’m just kidding,” he adds, and reminds us that Mirabeau was disinterred a few years later, when his secret correspondence with King Louis was discovered, and his remains tossed in an unmarked grave. It’s as if his metronomic telling of months of legislative history (around 15 of the 55 half-hour episodes on the French Revolution alone) were one long setup for this glorious punchline.

Duncan also saves some irony for the overreaches of the Left, like his wry comments about how the anti-Catholic measures the Parisian revolutionaries are going to play in the countryside. Revolutions make pleasurable stories the same way that drama does, by showing flawed characters becoming ambitious, hatching plans, and failing beautifully.

If I have one complaint about Revolutions the podcast then it’s the amount of time it spends on military details – and I realize already how ridiculous that sounds. It’s like saying jazz has too many horn solos. That could be a lesson for would-be revolutionaries, that the history of revolutions is the history of wars about them. Still, and though I could be projecting here, I can’t help sensing that Duncan really loves political philosophy and he’s going through the military histories as a matter of duty – or to engage with a different kind of history nerd than we are.

In other words which flank of the Royalist line failed first at the Battle of Naseby I don’t care so much about. Although military history matters, I have always read history with an emotional attachment to the ideas at stake, and an appreciation for the concessions that elites were or weren’t willing to make to win wars, and the sacrifices that common people made at home, but the military fights that went with them were like rolling the dice and hoping the good guys win.

Which brings us back to Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland. Was he a “good guy”? I love Duncan because he settles for an answer that speaks to me: Charles wasn’t a bad guy. (He has a similar take on Louis 16th.) A subtheme of this theme of incompetent leadership, when looking at the spectacular fall of the various old regimes, was the mixing of civilian and military authority. When one family, or one person, controls both the army and the other institutions at any one time, they’d better have good judgements about which tool to pick up to deal with whatever problem is at hand, and Charles had bad instincts about this.

We only come to see this, however, after we’ve heard the long story of how he ended up where he never wanted to be in the first place. Charles was the younger brother, who only became the heir apparent when his natural-born-leader big brother died. And it’s not like it was easy picking a wife from the courts of Europe while the atrocious religious wars of the 1620s were raging. And it certainly does not help that the Calvinists who took over Parliament and eventually suffocated it were absolute jerks too.

Charles I was everything we love to hate: autocracy, snobbery, chauvinism, and privilege. His mistakes cost thousands of lives. And yet by the time he is sitting in jail waiting for execution you are absolutely disgusted at the people who are going to do it. That’s good drama, and good history.

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