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Can history hand us a moral compass?

Harry Truman with Winston Churchill in 1952. NARA

Harry Truman with Winston Churchill in 1952. NARA

August 7, 2018   4 mins

Two books, each very different, both grippingly written, seem to me to have particular contemporary resonance. I’d recommend the pair to anyone seeking a fresh perspective on the current state of global affairs.

The first, perhaps surprisingly, is Antonia Fraser’s The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights, 1829. The clue to its pertinence is in the subtitle, however, where it mentions ‘Rights’. As A N Wilson notes in his review in The Spectator, once won, rights and freedoms are taken for granted. Today, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine life before the Married Women’s Property Act, when a woman’s belongings automatically became the sole property of her husband upon marriage:

“By a similar token, the mind can scarcely take in the fact that in Penal times, Catholics could not buy or sell land; or that it was an imprisonable offence for Catholics to run a school. It was a legal offence to dress as a monk or a nun out of doors.”

The penal laws notably excluded Catholics from public life, but they extended to Protestant non-conformists too. Indeed, the term ‘non-conformist’ derived from their refusal to take the oath of adherence to the Established Church of England as required by the 1662 Act of Uniformity – specifically, to the ‘Articles of Religion’ in the new Book of Common Prayer.

Has Secularism created such a climate of intolerance that there is now no need of penal laws?

No office in government could be held, nor in the church or the army, without the swearing of the oath. It was the reaction of the restored monarchy to Oliver Cromwell’s rule as Lord Protector. These penal laws increased in scope after the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’, when King James II, a Catholic, attempted to re-establish the rights of Catholics. This merely precipitated his deposal in favour of the staunchly Protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange, who was married to James’s daughter Mary.

Throughout the 18th Century the laws stood on the statute books, though were ameliorated somewhat to allow Catholic recruiting for the army, especially in Ireland. An attempt to repeal them in 1780 precipitated the ‘Gordon Riots’, which resulted in huge damage in London and 300 deaths.

Parliament was, on the whole, fairly relaxed about repeal. The reluctance lay with successive monarchs: George III and George IV both felt bound by their specifically Protestant coronation oaths, and (to begin with) the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel felt as strongly.

The author tells the story with all her usual insight and style of how their ‘conversion’ came about, and how not all the opposition was based on bigotry or base motives. But the book is so much more than the history of an issue that is scarcely comprehensible in today’s liberal, secular consensus.

The book compels the reader to make the connection with the questions facing our own society over minorities – specifically religious minorities. In particular, has Secularism created such a climate of intolerance that there is now no need of penal laws – a far more insidious repression?

My second suggestion for your beach bag is The Accidental President: Harry S Truman, the Bomb, and the Four Months that Changed the World (Penguin) by the American Journalist A J Baime. Truman was first an accidental vice president, an outsider from Missouri who, at the last minute, was persuaded to stand in the 1944 elections as President D Roosevelt’s running mate to garner a wider demographic vote. Truman had been in post less than three months when in April 1945 FDR died. He had greatness thrust upon him.

The enormity of the issues he had to deal with during the first four months of his presidency were, with the exception of Lincoln, the greatest any US president had faced before or has done since – notably the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the reconstruction of Europe, and the Soviet threat to the West.

Truman’s origins were among the most humble of any president, and he had no tertiary education to speak of. He had seen active service in France in the First World War as a commissioned officer in a National Guard artillery unit, however, and after the war tried a number of commercial ventures, though none proved very successful.

That which qualifies a man or woman for supreme leadership is their fundamental quality of character

Through his long-term interest in the Democratic Party and a solid reputation for public administration, though, in 1934 he was elected as US senator from Missouri. But he only came to wider notice after 1941, as the highly effective chairman of the committee supervising military appropriations and contracts.

Baime tells the story of Truman’s first four months at the White House – half of which was spent at or travelling to and from Potsdam (Berlin) for the final allied conference of the war. He took the decision to use the atomic bomb to force the surrender of Japan – against much advice, including that of his chief of staff, Fleet Admiral Leahy – to save both American and Japanese lives in the invasion that would otherwise follow. He saw through Stalin at Potsdam and resolved to oppose his designs on Europe, resolving on a huge financial programme to restart the economies of both allies and defeated enemies alike (Marshall Aid’).

And what shines through the book’s intimate details of those months – all of which are fascinating – are Truman’s humanity, integrity, courage, robustness, sound sense and judgement. Beyond native intelligence, that which qualifies a man or woman for supreme leadership is their fundamental quality of character.

It is this that, looking at the world today, resonates so strongly.

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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