Isaac Newton and the tyrant: Academia meets power politics

Isaac Newton's subtle role in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is often overlooked. Photo: Isaac Newton and King James II

OHATCHEE, Ala., July 18, 2013 — As Janet Napolitano’s recent career change reminds us, academia tends to have a close relationship with political administrations. Universities have been affected by the federal HHS mandate, science professors have manipulated data in order to receive government funding, and Arab states expressed interest in supporting American minorities by funding certain colleges and student bodies (see page 14). 

Colleges perpetuate the world’s bureaucracy by cycling leadership and sowing the seeds of policy for future politicians.


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So it has been for ages, which is why King James II of England sought to manipulate the administration of universities in order to consolidate his authority. In an era in which religious denominations were essentially political parties, James was a Catholic who believed in a 17th century French-influenced divine right of kings theology. But he ruled over a Protestant England.

The University of Oxford, being a seminary of Anglicanism, was the first to be targeted by the king. The fellows of Magdalen College were punished by eviction when they refused to elect a papal-leaning president, and when Anglican president Dr. Hough had his office wrested from him, “he complained that the government had illegally deprived him of what was tantamount to private property,” thus invoking a debate about the deprivation of English rights.

As soon as he made John Massey the Dean of Christ Church for the lone qualification of being a Roman Catholic, King James boasted to the Pope’s legate that “what he had done at Oxford would very soon be done at Cambridge.”

In February 1687, the king issued a mandate that a Benedictine monk, Father Alban Francis (also known religiously as “Placid”) be awarded a Master of Arts degree from the University of Cambridge, without taking the statutory oaths of allegiance and supremacy, of course, which happened to have been a part of the law and Cambridge tradition since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.


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This would give a devout “papist” and royal partisan a position of political leadership as well as academic authority within the University of Cambridge.

Meanwhile, Isaac Newton was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, completing the second and third volumes of his scientific masterpiece, the”Principia.” Although he was becoming renowned for his intellect, Newton did not yet lead much of a public life. He was the country gentleman professor who oftentimes gave his lectures to the walls when his classes failed to arrive. His greatest scientific achievements were done privately, some of which occurred while he was taking refuge at Woolsthorpe during an outbreak of the plague.

But as a Master of Arts holder, Newton was a member of the Cambridge Senate and had to decide whether the university would obey the king or the law. When Newton and the rest of Cambridge leadership conditionally rejected the king’s nominee, King James was offended and summoned Cambridge to trial before the illegally re-established Court of High Commission for Ecclesiastical Affairs.

Lawyers advised Cambridge to remind the king of the university’s usual loyalty to his majesty when arguing the case and warned that Cambridge was fighting at its own peril. The Lord Chancellor of the Court was King James’ handpicked Judge George Jeffreys, known as the “Hanging Judge” for his brutal, questionable condemnations and a reputation for drunkeness. 

Among the eight deputies elected to represent Cambridge in court was Isaac Newton.

Newton was very familiar with the oaths in question in the Cambridge Case. They were vows to pledge allegiance only to England and her Church, and to resist foreign potentates and principalities. Newton had taken the oaths himself when he earned his MA and when he acceded the Lucasian Chair, and perhaps they played a role in his curiosity about the doctrines and theologies of Anglicanism and Catholicism.

Though Newton was quiet about his faith and skepticism alike during this time, he took the Providential worldview seriously regarding politics, and he acted upon it. Newton was born into an England torn by civil war, and he was raised by Puritans and Royalists alike. 

A document in Newton’s possession, which he may have authored, explains that the Cambridge Case was not about Father Francis’ Catholicism but about England’s sovereignty and keeping the law because “refusing the Man was not said to be because he is a Papist but because he refused the Oaths.”

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: “The King cannot dispence with a law made for securing the liberty or property of the people…” (Isaac Newton)

Newton also explained in his written answers to the Lord Chancellor’s questions that “[m]en of the Roman ffaith have been put into Masterships of Colleges. The entrance into ffellowships is as open,” but a “mixture of Papist and Protestants in the same University can neither subsist happily nor long together.”

Church, state and academia were inextricably linked in Restoration England, and the natural philosophy being formed by Newton’s generation of “new” science was conducive to a political philosophy of latitudinarianism, which suggested that there should be latitude concerning minute differences between Christian denominations because the basic tenets of Christian belief gleaned from rational study of Scripture and the natural world are enough for moral and social governance.

Before their trip to London, Newton and the rest of the deputies worked to prepare an argument for the court. When a compromise was suggested en route, Newton shot it down, insisting they resist the king.

The motive to give an MA to Father Francis the Placid seemed purely political and certainly followed a pattern. The entire basis of the king having any authority over the university (through the oaths of supremacy and allegiance themselves) was so that he could protect academia from exploitive and foreign sources, yet King James seemed to be using his power for the opposite purpose.

Newton observed that when it comes to dispensing with laws, the king has no authority to ignore laws which are against mala in se (that is, laws against crimes that are wrong in themselves based on absolute principle). “The King cannot dispence with a law made for securing the liberty or property of the people,” wrote Newton. He figured that the king also could not dispense with a statute unless there was some reasonable necessity.

Using Biblical examples, Newton concluded that all human beings, king and common alike, may sometimes “transgress the law” in cases of necessity, such as when King David became hungry and ate the showbread consecrated for priests. An anonymous manuscript either authored or collected by Newton states that “all honest Men are obliged by the Laws of God & Man to obey the Kings lawfull Commands, but if his Majesty be advisd to require a Matter which cannot be done by Law, no Man can suffer for neglect of it.”

Judge Jeffreys (a Cambridge graduate himself) laughed at the Cambridge delegation and finally told them, “Go your way, and sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto you.” Alban Francis still did not receive his degree, but Dr. Peachell, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, lost his job.

When King James established a standing army and interfered to the point of controlling local elections to ensure towns elected his partisans (including men without property) even when some of his nominees were illiterate, the Tories agreed with the Whigs that this king was insufferable.

William of Orange’s bloodless invasion found the king of England unprepared to retain his throne. James finally tossed the Great Seal of England into the Thames River and fled to France.

When William III summoned a Convention Parliament in 1689, Isaac Newton was elected as representative of the University of Cambridge in time to pass the historic English Bill of Rights of 1689.

During the French Revolution a century later, Monsieur Navier reflected on the Glorious Revolution thusly: “In securing their own happiness, Englishmen have prepared the way for that of the universe.”

In the midst of preparing the way for a greater understanding of the universe, Sir Isaac Newton was one of those Englishmen.

For more information on this subject, see Amanda Read’s academic paper, Scientist in the ‘World Politick’: Isaac Newton and the Glorious Revolution.

 

 

 

Amanda Read is a columnist for the Communities at The Washington Times. Trained as a historian, skilled as a writer, and aspiring to be a filmmaker, Amanda investigates the ideas behind contemporary culture and politics. A professional writer and researcher, she is also a Christian homeschool graduate, unconventional college graduate, military daughter, and eldest of the nine Read children at Fair Hills Farm. Find more of her work at www.amandaread.com.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Amanda Read

Amanda Read is a columnist for the Communities at The Washington Times. Trained as a historian, skilled as a writer, and aspiring to be a filmmaker, Amanda investigates the ideas behind contemporary culture and politics. A professional writer and researcher, she is also a Christian homeschool graduate, unconventional college graduate, military daughter, and eldest of the nine Read children at Fair Hills Farm. Find more of her work at www.amandaread.com

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