Paul E. Johnson

Paul E.

American Historian and Professor at University of South Carolina

Author Quotes

The Reformation in England made explicit a declaration of independence from the Continent which was rooted in a thousand years of political and intellectual development.

There is no evidence that the English Catholics, as a group, wanted to expel their Queen. Most of them did not care a damn for the Pope; they never had done. What did they care for was the mass, and certain other spiritual comforts of the old religion. They were, like the genuine Protestants, a minority group, and Elizabeth would have been prepared to give them minority rights. But the papacy, by excommunicating Elizabeth, and by instructing English Catholics to depose her, branded them with treason... The Catholics could not logically plead that they still served the Queen without renouncing the Pope; they were either bad Catholics, by papal definition, or bad Englishmen... The English are not particularly logical, but they saw the logic of this problem clearly... The Elizabethan persecution of Catholics was thus justified by the needs of State and public security... Elizabeth preferred fines and imprisonment to execution; she killed on average no more than 8 a year... But she could not save the English Catholic community; at her death only about 10,000 were still prepared to publicly declare themselves Romanists.

Whatever else the re-election of Bush signifies, it was a smack in the face for the intelligentsia. In America they were all at it, from old Chomsky to that movie-maker who looks like a mushy jumbo cheeseburger. Today, I suspect, the intellectuals are impotent because so many of them are no good. In America it is a sign of the times that their leader is the mobile cheeseburger.

The Reformation was a typical piece of English conservatism, conducted with the familiar mix of muddle, deviousness, hypocrisy, and ex post facto rationalization. Henry was never quite clear in his own mind whether he wanted an actual change in religion, though there is evidence that in his last years he was moving in that direction... He had no plan of action, moving from one expedient to another... On the other hand... it may be that Cromwell, one of the ablest men who ever served the Crown, was far more deliberate and systematic in his methods than his master, Henry, or than appears at first sight. Cromwell was a parliamentary manager; it was on his advice that the Reformation was carried through by Parliament, in the most punctilious and thorough constitutional manner, providing the Crown with a massive overkill of statutory weapons for present and future use against Romanism... Cromwell's explanation was no doubt that Parliament, itself the national repository of anti-clericalism, was the best guarantor of the permanency of the breach with Rome. And so it proved. After the Reformation Parliament, it became impossible for the Monarch (irrespective of personal religious views) to decide such matters in a parliamentary context. It was very significant that Queen Mary had to go to Parliament to get Henry's laws reversed: and on certain matters it declined to do so. Mary could not really put the clock back without destroying Parliament and operating a personal tyranny... Parliament's sovereignty in spiritual matters had thus been formally acknowledged even by a fanatically Catholic queen. After that the Elizabethan settlement was simple and obvious.

There were many great men in Lincoln's day ...yet Lincoln seems to have been of a different order of moral stature, and of intellectual heroism. He was a strong man... without vanity or self-consciousness - and also tender... he invariably did the right thing, however easily it might be avoided. Of how many other great men can that be said?

When Americans argued that it was intolerable that flourishing cities like Boston or Philadelphia should have no voce in Westminster, the English establishment retorted that neither did Manchester, Birmingham or Sheffield. But this cut absolutely no ice in America. The truth is, the Americans could not be accorded constitutional rights without granting them to the vast, unrepresented multitudes in England itself; this would make the spoils system, and so the 'balanced constitution', unworkable, and bring about a return to anarchy. The English ruling class had to choose between stability and empire; and much as they valued both, they chose stability, as they were again to do in the mid-20th century.

The Renaissance was the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism. And the first and greatest of those individuals was Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante was a Florentine, appropriately because Florence played a more important role in the Renaissance than any other city. He also embodies the central paradox of the Renaissance: while it was about the recovery and understanding of ancient Greek and Latin texts, and the writing of elegant Latin, it was also about the maturing, ordering and use of vernacular languages, especially Italian.

This book is dedicated to the people of America--strong, outspoken, intense in their convictions, sometimes wrong-headed but always generous and brave, with a passion for justice no nation has ever matched.

When I surrender to prolonged entreaties to accept an offer, repeated over and over again, I do so for the sake of peace and quiet rather than my own advantage. However much it may have cost the giver, he is actually in my debt-for it costs me more.

The retreat from free trade left Britain isolated... It had taken more than a century for Adam Smith?s doctrines to win acceptance and implementation. By 1875, however, they were the supreme orthodoxy. Free trade was traditional... It was what England was all about. Abandon free trade, merely because some frightened foreign governments had lost faith in it?.. No leading politician of either party was prepared even to contemplate such a proposal. The depression of the 1870s exposed the English public mind at its worst: drugged by a dogma which had once enshrined empirical truth.

This political underpinning of the Reformation was reinforced by the creation of a huge vested interest in its permanency. But the end of Henry's reign, the bulk of the monastic lands had passed into the hands of private individuals... giving the propertied classes a direct, financial interest in the dissolution. After 1545, there were very few wealthy or influential Englishmen who did not have a personal stake in the Reformation.

When Jesus Christ preached in Palestine two millennia ago, the distinctions between rich and poor were painfully visible. The rich were plump and well-clad, warm and clean, scented and groomed. The poor were thin, in rags, filthy and stinking. Now all that has changed. The "poverty line" has to be revised upward every year. The officially "poor" now have cars, often own homes, take holiday trips and possess all the appliances judged indispensable. For the first time in history, plumpness and obesity are signs of poverty. The rich are lean, dieting on salads and often refusing to eat meat. They may still spend a fortune on clothing, but the results are not obvious. Clever mass production and marketing mean that a smart girl with taste, though she only works in a drugstore, can dress as elegantly as a Rockefeller or a Rothschild. In advanced countries (and in a growing proportion of the Third World) central heating, hot running water, fresh milk and fruit are now taken for granted. It takes less than a decade for today's luxury to become a universal necessity.

The story of the English is an instructive one, for others as well as themselves... a backward island gently washed by the tides of Continental cultures; its separate development rudely forced out by the tides of colonization; independence seized, repeatedly lost, at last firmly established within a complex racial mold; the intellectual divorce from the Continent; the expansion overseas; the crystallization, within the island, of an entirely new material culture, which spreads over the Earth; the moment of power and arrogance, dissolving into ruinous wars; the survival and the quest for new roles... there is nothing in it which in inevitable; but nothing purely accidental either.

This was all very well: Columbanus's success indicates the appeal of his mission. But his activities, for the first time, brought the nature of Celtic monasticism firmly to the attention of the Church authorities -- to western bishops in general, and to the Bishop of Rome in particular. The Irish monks were not heretical. But they were plainly unorthodox. They did not look right, to begin with. They had the wrong tonsure. Rome, as was natural, had 'the tonsure of St Peter', that is, a shaven crown. Easterners had the tonsure of St Paul, totally shaven; and if they wished to take up an appointment in the West they had to wait until their rim grew before being invested. But the Celts looked like nothing on earth: they had their hair long at the back and, on the shaven front part, a half-circle of hair from one ear to the other, leaving a band across the forehead.

When William dismissed his mercenaries in 1070, nearly all returned to France? The probability is that the Continental settlement did not involve more than 10,000 people - and perhaps as few as 5,000 out of a population of well over a million. England simply acquired a new ruling class.

The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.

Though a time of great plenty, it was not an era of greed. When Andrew Carnegie wrote, "The man who dies rich, dies disgraced," he was not engaged in empty sloganeering. The Scottish immigrant spent more than $350 million on charitable causes, including millions for the construction of more than 2,800 public libraries. Nor was Carnegie alone among "robber barons" in using private fortune for public good. It was Colonel Jim Fisk who came to the rescue of Chicago after its great fire of 1871. Likewise, railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman heaped generosity upon San Francisco following the infamous earthquake of 1906. Leland Stanford, Daniel Drew, and Cornelius Vanderbilt - derisively labeled "robber barons" by the denizens of academia today - all gave more than their surnames to establish famous centers of learning.

The study of history suggests that the sum total of intolerance in society does not vary much. What changes is the object against which it is directed. Those who shape the conventional wisdom at the top are always anxious to censor unorthodoxy, thus demonstrating their power and consolidating their grip.

Throughout history, the attachment of even the humblest people to their freedom, above all their freedom to earn their livings how and where they please, has come as an unpleasant shock to condescending ideologues. We need not suppose that the exercise of freedom is bought at the expense of any deserving class or interest ? only of those with the itch to tyrannize.

The threat to Elizabeth from the Puritans was far greater, and she was in the end obliged to take it seriously. English Puritanism was born among the Marian exiles of the 1550s; it was thus an alien import... The Puritans, like the Roman Catholic extremists, believed that religion was the only important thing in life, whereas most Englishmen thought it was something you did on Sundays. They were influential out of all proportion to their numbers because, like the Communists in our own age, they were highly organized, disciplined, and adept at getting each other into positions of power. They were strong in the universities... They oozed hypocrisy... They did not believe in free speech. They believed in a doctrinaire religion, imposed by force and maintained by persecution... They were the mirror-image of the Counter-Reformation... They privileges the Puritans claimed for themselves they would certainly have denied to others... Puritanism was the dynamic behind the increase in witch-hunting.

To the ordinary citizens of Florence, or any other town in Italy, architecture was visually far more important than any other art, let alone writing. They might not penetrate to the treasures housed in the palaces, but they could see them from the outside, and they were familiar with the churches and the cathedrals... Building, even more than public sculpture, was a matter of civic pride.

The truth is that the English are not, and have never been, a religious people. That it why toleration first took root in our country. There were, to be sure, plenty of religious zealots in England... but all together they never made up more than a minority. It is a matter for argument whether England has ever been a Christian country. The English like to be baptized, to get married in church, to be buried in consecrated ground; they pray in times of peril, they take a mild interest in religious controversy, and like to clothe the State in religious forms. But they are not truly interested in the spiritual life. We must not think of the Middle Ages in England as a religious era. It was a time when the priestly caste occupied a major role in society and in the economy... The Church was a profession... Protestantism was a more meaningful faith than Catholicism for the English, but only for a minority... On the whole it is doubtful whether, at any time in history, more than 50% of the English people have attended Sunday services regularly or paid more than lip-service to their church. This is not true of many other countries. In the United States, even today, well over 50% regularly go to services on sabbatical days. In Scotland, Ireland and Wales it is likely that, until recent decades, observance was the custom of the great majority, and religion played a meaningful role in their lives.

Trust science. By this we mean a true science, based on objectively established criteria and agreed foundations, with a rational methodology and mature criteria of proof - not the multitude of pseudo-sciences which, as we have seen, have marked characteristics which can easily be detected and exposed. Science, properly defined, is an essential part of civilization. To be anti-science is not the mark of a civilized human being, or of a friend of humanity. Given the right safeguards and standards, the progress of science constitutes our best hope for the future, and anyone who denies this proposition is an enemy of science.

The truth is, language is the most democratic of all institutions. People determine how they speak themselves, and they are driven by simple self-interest.

Until the 1830s, England was the only industrialized country... Britain was then in a position to apply the new industrial processes to military technology in a manner denied to the world beyond, and to achieve an overwhelming supremacy in the use of firepower over nay nation or groups of nations... It never seems to have occurred to the English even to consider the possibility of exploiting the new industrial power they had created to achieve and maintain a world hegemony of advanced weapons.

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Paul E.
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American Historian and Professor at University of South Carolina