The English holiday known as Guy Fawkes Day has become surprisingly fashionable in recent years—thanks largely to the success of the book and film V for Vendetta. In the Old Country, it’s become a harmless autumn festival of bonfires and apples, but the political edge that some people are giving to Guy Fawkes today, both in Britain and the United States should give us pause. Guy Fawkes was no hero—certainly not a rebellious defender of individual liberty—and defenders of freedom would do well to take a moment before embracing Guy Fawkes iconography to reflect on what the Fifth of November is really all about.
Fawkes was not protesting in favor of civil liberty. He was a Catholic terrorist, a member of a group who plotted a horrific act of violence: they rented a space beneath the Parliament building in London and stocked it with casks of gunpowder, intending to blow it up during the coronation of James I in 1605. The plot was discovered on November 5th, in time to avert a catastrophe that could have cost many, many lives. Fawkes, in short, was a member of a fundamentalist terrorist cell in the service of an international jihad run by the proto-totalitarians of the Inquisition.
But that’s not the whole story. James was not a particularly anti-Catholic monarch at first. While his predecessor, Elizabeth, had persecuted the Catholics, James ascended to the throne with hopes of loosening some of England’s religious restrictions. In fact, some hard-line Protestants thought James was a secret Catholic! But after the Gunpowder Plot, James—a believer in absolute monarchy and divine right—felt forced to crack down severely on Catholicism, and the Plot led in various ways to severe religious repressions. This and other factors led to a breakdown in the British constitutional order that within a generation would engulf England in civil war.
Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, meanwhile, were tried for treason—prosecuted by Attorney General Sir Edward Coke. The conspirators were tortured to elicit confessions, and since there were no rules of evidence at the time, their trials were hardly models of due process. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were convicted and sentenced to a brutal execution.
The entire episode is a chilling and terrifying reminder of the dismal days of the Stuart dynasty and of the things America’s founders hoped to avoid when they put the Constitution together. Our bill of rights separates politics and religion in order to protect people’s right to practice the religion of their choice (or none at all) without political punishment or preference; ensures people a right to a fair and public trial through due process of law; forbids torture and cruel and unusual punishments. And it allows the people to choose their own political officials, thus helping to create a society where persuasion, rather than persecution—deliberation, rather than terror—are the guiding principles of our political disputes. Above all, it guarantees a realm of individual liberty that allows people to choose their own lives freely. We should emphatically protest any infringement on that liberty—and they are sadly common. But we should carry on our campaign for freedom wisely—not in a way that glorifies either side of the Seventeenth Century’s brutal era of theocracy, repression, torture, conquest, and death.