President Bush, one gathers from his exit ruminations, believes history will treat him more kindly than today’s polls. But history is tricky. Although it has tended to give presidents the benefit of the doubt–once aspersions are cast, they can stick and grow. Dwight Eisenhower, has been reevaluated upward, as has Harry Truman. But there has been no mercy for James Buchanan, and not much for Warren Harding. And Jimmy Carter is in historical limbo.
When we leave these shores, history gets vicious. In French history, untold numbers of monarchs have been pilloried by historians as decadent, feckless and idle. Their queens, too. It is unlikely that Marie Antoinette actually said, “Let them eat cake.” But that libel has stuck to her down through time.
In English history things are just as bad, or worse, but the targeting has been more precise. Although appeasement was popular when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain capitulated to Adolf Hitler, he has been vilified ever since. English monarchs have had to deal with English writers. They dubbed Mary I “Bloody Mary” and contrasted her unfavorably with her half sister, Elizabeth I, an all-round favorite.
If you came to the attention of Shakespeare, you were pretty well done for. Richard III, is a villain in history, despite scholars’ attempts to rescue him and a relentless disavowal of the popular concept of his villainy in the north of England, where he is still a local hero.
Then there is the linkage between the most denigrated English monarch, John, and our own George W. Bush. Not only did he merit a fairly obscure Shakespearian play, but his name was so blackened by his barons that no other English monarch has ever been named John.
Actually John was not all bad, but he was definitely luckless. His father, Henry II (whom we know from the play “Lion in Winter”) disliked him so much that he inherited no land and was known derisively as “John the Lackland.” He was totally overshadowed by his elder brother, Richard the Lionheart.
But when Richard headed to the Middle East in the Third Crusade, he put John in charge of things in England and the chunks of France controlled by the English crown. John gets no credit, but apparently he was an able administrator and an undistinguished soldier. He also had the unedifying habit of flying into towering rages.
The seeds of John’s later humiliation at Runnymede in the Thames River were sown in France, after Richard was killed and the crown passed to John. As commander in chief, John systematically lost English lands to the French. And he picked up a new sobriquet “John Soft Sword.”
With a diminished empire, John increased taxes on his subjects and the barons in particular. Apparently, history does not take kindly to those who increase taxes. But there is no evidence that it rewards those who cut them.
Anyway, the barons had had enough of John and forced him to sign the Magna Carta (the Great Charter) in 1215, which embodied habeas corpus (produce the body) to control reprisals by the king. It became the central pillar of English Common Law and its U.S. derivative. It also became a cornerstone for human rights legislation elsewhere and remained such, until George W. Bush and his administration excluded enemy combatants from its provisions.
The president might be encouraged to know that there was an attempt by historians to reposition John more favorably in the scheme of things seven centuries later. However, a children’s verse by A.A. Milne in the 1920s which said, “King John was not a good man–/He had his little ways,” confirmed the old view.
Winston Churchill, referencing habeas corpus, summarized the legacy of John’s reign: “When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labors of virtuous sovereigns.”
Presumably, history will record that Bush admired Churchill but lacked his enthusiasm for John’s legacy: the Magna Carta.