Why Americans Don’t “Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”

Another November 5th is upon us. Many British observe – informally, it is not an official state holiday – something called Guy Fawkes night, or Bonfire Night. It stems historically from this, as History.com tells us:

On the night of November 5, 1605, the conspiracy by English Catholics to kill King James I and replace him with his Catholic daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was cut short by the arrest of Guy Fawkes, who had been charged with placing gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament. The plot involved digging a tunnel under the Palace of Westminster, filling it with gunpowder and then triggering a deadly explosion during the ceremonial opening of Parliament, which would have resulted in the death of not only James I, but also the leading Protestant nobility. From then on, November 5 was celebrated in Britain and its colonies with a bonfire burning either Guy Fawkes or the pope in effigy.

Many bonfires and fireworks’ displays are organized across the country by local governments. This is in some ways surprising in 2018 given the observances are clearly rooted in anti-Catholicism and Great Britain – England, Wales, and Scotland, thus not even including Northern Ireland – is home to some 5 million Roman Catholics. The fireworks had been employed in taunting Catholics about the failed plot in sarcastically setting off fireworks across the country – essentially “making fun” of the attempted explosion by exploding fireworks all over the place. It is a decidedly negative observance.

Great Britain in 1605 was still in the throes of the Protestant Reformation, when religion was perceived as synonymous with nationalism. Protestantism was seen as “of these islands,” while Roman Catholicism was by then conflated with doing the biddings of Catholic France and Catholic Spain, and, by extension, of the Pope. By 1605, two years after the death of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, who had died childless, Protestantism was clearly already in ascendancy and anti-Catholic laws had been appearing since around the time King Henry VIII had had Thomas More beheaded in 1535 over More’s refusal to ascede to the King’s demand that he be allowed to divorce/annul his marriage to his queen, Catherine of Aragon (who was Spanish). The 1605 “Gunpowder plot” helped lead to two further centuries of even more overt anti-Catholic British legislation and additional strife in determinedly then Catholic Ireland.

[Fireworks over Enfield, London, on Friday, November 2, 2018. Photo by me.]

For most British in 2018, Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night is just a fun evening. It is about making things go “BOOM!” and they (I believe) are not shooting off fireworks to try to offend Roman Catholic neighbo(u)rs. The ones who suffer the most frankly are the country’s pets, and those humans stressed by fireworks going off in back gardens – nonsense which often starts now around Halloween. However, the residual social costs of the Protestant Reformation here, particularly the religious/political division and strife between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the British province of Northern Ireland today, still remains very much sadly with us.

History, remember, is always part of our lives.

170 years after 1605, across the Atlantic Ocean in the North American colonies then rising in revolt against Great Britain, the colonies’ new army’s commander-in-chief knew full-well the observances were rooted in insult and meant to demean Roman Catholics. Britain was by now no longer beset as it was arguably in “1605”: it was the world’s greatest power; and religion was ceasing to be a motivating factor in alliances. That Protestant American wasn’t having it in the army – especially if Americans hoped to win the help of neighbors to the north…

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Click to Expand. Photo by me, 2018.]

Anticipating what might be about to happen in the American army’s camps the coming evening, he issued this statement to his commanders among his General Orders (of the day) for November 5, 1775:

As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d, for the observance of that ridiculous and childish Custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers, in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship & alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered, or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

The general who noted that was, of course, George Washington. Due to his disapproval, anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes observances never took hold in the new United States army. That order likely had a great deal to do as well with ending the practice in the eventually independent United States of America. “Remember, remember the fifth of November” now means – thankfully – nothing in the United States.

[View of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, his home for most of his life. Virginia, U.S.A. Photo by me, 2011.]
[Above George and Martha Washington’s tombs. Mount Vernon. Photo by me, 2011.]
[George Washington’s grave at his home, Mt. Vernon, Virginia. Photo by me, 2011.]
[On the National Mall, Washington, DC, looking towards the Washington Monument. Photo by me, 2018.]

Tomorrow are also the 2018 mid-term US elections and as we vote it may be worth recalling that action on his part well over two centuries ago. What a president – or a future president – says and does about ANYTHING can influence eternity, both positively or negatively. As voters, we need always to remember that.

Have a good Monday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

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