Saturday, July 4, 2015

English liberty: the tradition of rebellion, America as it could have been, and America as it should be

This young, bastard-born upstart from the West Indies, who detested slavery and upheld aristocratic principles, is in danger of being wiped out of our currency. He also features heavily in today's entry.

Dear friends,

We've just finished the long haul from Texas, relocating to a small township outside of Philadelphia, that once great city and first capital of these United States. Here in our new home, the hour grows late, everyone else is fast asleep for the moment, and my restless mind turns to the recent incidents in Charleston and Washington DC, the story of this nation's founding, and where to go from here.

I've always subscribed to an idea that vexes my friends on both the traditionalist and progressivist poles of the political spectrum (that is, those who believe the American Revolution was a mistake, and those who believe it didn't go far enough): that our declaration of independence from mother England, whatever path it ultimately put us on, wasn't meant to be a clean break from the rest of western civilization, a radical experiment in democracy, or the earth-shattering new beginning that we, and apparently people of other nations, have convinced ourselves it was. No, I've understood it to merely be another chapter in the story of English government; part of a tradition that extends back to the Anglo-Saxon age of our mother country's history. 

The "Saxon Myth"

Those of you who are enthusiasts of early American history know that mine is hardly an original idea: indeed, most of the Founding Fathers believed it to one degree or another. In short, it's the belief that the Saxons of early medieval England (prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066) were a fiercely independent people that jealously guarded their liberties. Their tribal leaders regularly convened at the Witenagemot, which secured the common law of the realm, elected their kings, and even deposed them as needed. Even after the Conquest, the Saxon tradition ultimately prevailed by bringing King John to heel in 1215, forcing him to sign Magna Carta. And, of course, the witenagemot of old formed the foundation for its spiritual successor in the Norman age: Parliament.

Is this a rather rose-tinted mythological view of Saxon history? Probably, but no worse than any other nation. Is it an oversimplification of English history? Certainly. Does it fit a narrative of Anglo-Saxon racial supremacy? It can, but that's beyond the scope of my post and my intention here. What matters is that the founders of the United States believed it, and that key characteristics of their revolution fit with past events in English history. This yearning for independence by looking into our tribal past can easily be understood if you consider how popular Vikings have been in the past few years. Aside from the obvious, namely the History Channel series Vikings and movies such as The 13th Warrior and Pathfinder, fantasy variants of the Vikings have been a hit in video games such as Skyrim and The Witcher 3. Don't forget the Norse mythology latent in Thor (my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films). 

Festivals like Burning Man and shows like Vikings are, more or less, the modern incarnation of the "Saxon myth".
Likewise, many of the founders saw themselves as part of a continuum reaching back to proud, free-roaming Saxon settlers, whose rights have been continually trampled upon by foreign kings from William the Conqueror/the Bastard to George III (George III's family, the House of Hanover, and most of the princesses they preferred to intermarry with, were Germans). Thomas Jefferson, for one, didn't even stop at merely studying Saxon history in the hope of better understanding English common law; he even learned the ancient Anglo-Saxon language and proposed it as part of the standard curriculum at the University of Virginia, on par with the Greek and Latin tongues that laid the cornerstone of the west. Jefferson also went so far as to propose that Saxon heroes Hengest and Horsa, forefathers of the Anglo-Saxon people and legendary founders of the Kingdom of Kent, appear on the reverse of the Great Seal.

A tradition of rebellion

I make no claims to the validity of the Saxon myth in all its points, but the American Revolution certainly couldn't have happened without concrete precedents going back to the High Middle Ages. On its 800th anniversary this year, I wouldn't dare fail to mention the significance of Magna Carta. It's a document no one who mentions it has actually read, and it didn't even work the first time it was issued, other than as a hit list for King John to conveniently refer to when hunting down rebels the moment the barons had their guard down. Most of Magna Carta's clauses deal with issues between the king and the barons that have no relevance today, such as forest rights. The Charter's authors, though, did take the time to set down a few everlasting principles which give it lasting relevance to our own time. First, it established the liberty of the English church:

"First, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable".
Not surprising, since the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (whose other lasting legacy was in creating the chapter-and-verse numbering system used in the Bible today), was one of the leaders of the rebellion. He, and other rebel leaders, were concerned about the king's increasing control over the Church, especially in the appointments for bishops. Not long before, John's father, Henry II, appointed his own chancellor, Thomas Becket, as archbishop of Canterbury, in the hope of reining the Church in to his will. King Henry VIII notably ran roughshod over this first clause throughout his reign to little protest. Saint Thomas More, the pre-eminent lawyer and statesman of his day,  and John Aske (a leader of the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace) both cited Magna Carta's protection of the English church when put on trial for treason. Both were executed. Later English thinkers interpreted this clause exactly the opposite way; where More and Aske saw it as a guarantee against the Protestant Reformation, Edward Coke argued it protected the Church of England from the interference of Rome and the pope.

"For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court."
Fleecing criminals was (and still is, though unjustly) a tried-and-true way of generating extra revenue for officers of the law. The abuses of excessive fines and bail were no less a problem in medieval England, and the common law continually tried to protect citizens from it, right up to the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ("Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed"). That clause itself was lifted from England's own 1689 Bill of Rights, whereby Parliament forbade excessive bails and fines "as their ancestors in like cases have usually done", nearly verbatim.

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."
It may surprise those of us who live in the U.S, the UK, and other lands formerly influenced by the British Empire that people who are charged with serious crimes even in developed non-common law countries like France aren't necessarily entitled to a jury trial, or even expect one.

The most lasting legacy of Magna Carta, though, other than legitimizing the idea of a "just rebellion" in the first place, is probably the very act of setting laws, which were formerly unspoken but understood to all, to parchment. For this reason, Americans celebrate the signing of Magna Carta even more than the British themselves. In no other country on earth is there such a dedication to the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura, the teaching of doctrine by the written words of the Bible alone. It's no coincidence that Americans also venerate their founding documents with a nearly equal fervor, and even the most liberal and irreligious among us quote the Constitution as though it were a sacred text. You'll even find that the monument at Runnymede, where King John set his seal to the Charter, was erected not by any English organization, but by the American Bar Association! It's fitting that a surviving copy of Magna Carta can be found, preserved behind glass, very near the Declaration of Independence and Constitution at the National Archives in Washington DC.

America as it could have been

Up to now, I've probably sounded more like a neo-conservative talking head, or perhaps a Whiggish historian, than the Modern Medievalist you've come to know and love. Fear not, for here's the twist: the error of our founding generation was not in taking up arms against the king, for English history is replete with instances of armed rebellion both for good and ill: the Barons' Wars, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the English Civil War, the so-called "Glorious Revolution", and the Jacobite uprisings, to name a few. The problem is that, in the absence of a king or anyone willing and able to step up to the plate, the founders had to create a new order from wholecloth. And, without men of equal vision to succeed them in future generations, the republic was bound to be torn apart by lesser minds and disintegrate into something wholly unrecognizable from what they had first established.

The victors of the American Revolutionary War were at an awkward place in 1783, following the evacuation of the last British troops from Manhattan. "What now?" was surely the question on everyone's minds. If history had played out on these shores as it did throughout most of Europe, the officers of the Continental Army would have proclaimed General Washington as king. I'm sure that if Washington were even remotely interested in ruling; in "picking up the Ring", as Isildur did in Tolkien's saga; the reign of George I would have been widely accepted throughout the colonies. Instead, he was content to play the part of the classsical Roman hero, Cincinnatus, resigning all his power once the war was done and returning to his farm. In Washington's absence, lesser men quibbled and quarreled over a fractious young republic until he was called back to service to be the figurehead of the Constitutional Convention (and, of course, first President under the new government).

Even before the evacuation of the British, a few of Washington's closest officers in the Army, including Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton, announced the formation of a brotherhood to foster maintain the ties of fellowship between officers of the Continental Army well after they would hang up their sabers. In a nod to that icon of Roman virtue (and not a little to their own commander-in-chief), it was dubbed the Society of the Cincinnati. General Washington was naturally President-General of the Society for life; a feat he earned well before becoming President of the United States. The Society's founding principles were these:

"An incessant attention to preserve inviolate those exalted rights and liberties of human nature, for which they have fought and bled, and without which the high rank of a rational being is a curse instead of a blessing.
"An unalterable determination to promote and cherish, between the respective States, that union and national honor so essentially necessary to their happiness, and the future dignity of the American empire.
"To render permanent the cordial affection subsisting among the officers. This spirit will dictate brotherly kindness in all things, and particularly extend to the most substantial acts of beneficence, according to the ability of the Society, towards those officers and their families who unfortunately may be under the necessity of receiving it."

Rules of membership were exclusive: not only did one have to be a commissioned officer, he also had to serve in the Continental Army or Navy for at least three years, or until death for a posthumous membership. Most patriots who had taken up arms against the British were enlisted soldiers or officers of the various state and regional militia, and thus were never eligible. In short, a Cincinnatus was a gentleman, not just any rabblerouser with a musket.

An officer did not, however, have to be American. In addition to the thirteen society branches for each colony, a fourteenth was established for the Kingdom of France. As soon as our compatriots in King Louis XVI's army and navy heard word of the Society, they flooded Washington's mailing address with applications for membership, treating it like a highly coveted order of chivalry; they called it l'Ordre de Cincinnatus; with Washington as its grandmaster. The Society's badge of membership, a golden eagle suspended from a ribbon of blue and white, was to forever commemorate the friendship of these two nations: blue for the Continental Army, white for royal France. While American members modestly refrained from wearing their eagles anywhere save Independence Day, official Cincinnati meetings, or the occasional portrait, King Louis authorized the Cincinnati eagle as one of only two foreign decorations allowed at the court of Versailles (the other being the medieval Order of the Golden Fleece). The golden eagles were proudly worn by the French and other foreign notables on their court uniforms alongside badges such as the cross of the chivalric Order of Saint Louis... and were likewise collected as trophies off the corpses of aristocrats by the mob during the Reign of Terror a few years later.

The most controversial aspect of the Society in America by far was its method of continuation: membership was to be passed down to the eldest heir by primogeniture. No original member of the Society could be represented by any more than one descendant at a time. If the member died without issue, his claim could be passed on to a younger brother or that brother's eldest son, and so on. This one clause fueled America's first tinfoil hat conspiracy craze. Newspapers across the thirteen states decried the Cincinnati as a new aristocracy. Despite numbering among the men who fought for independence with blood, gratitude for the officers' service was in short supply. The Rhode Island state legislature went so far as to ban any Society members from holding public office. 

Perhaps they had good reason to fear the Cincinnati's influence. A sizable portion of all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, perhaps a third, wore the golden eagle. One could even go so far as to argue that the Cincinnati's charter, made up of a general society governing thirteen state societies (plus France), gave the Founders the inspiration for the federalist system. A few adventuring members hoped to settle the Ohio Territory as a haven for veterans, naming the chief settlement Cincinnati and proposing to parcel out land based on rank in the Army; I forget the exact amounts they discussed, but imagine a lieutenant scoring 50 acres, 200 for a colonel, and a private forest or three for a general officer. As history would have it, none of the conspiracy theorists' fears came to pass. After Washington's death, the office of President-General passed on to Alexander Hamilton. After the fateful duel with Burr, the next President-General, Charles Pinckworth Coteney, lost his bid for the presidency of the United States to James Madison. After Monroe, no Cincinnatus has been elected President since, although the Society actually continues alive and well as this nation's premier hereditary society today.  

A Society of the Cincinnati membership certificate

America as it should be

After writing about half of today's entry, I took some time this morning to go forth into the city of brotherly love to visit Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and signed. I also took a quick tour through the National Constitution Center down the street, a learning museum more-or-less built for the local kids to go on field trips through and hopefully take a modicum of interest in how the government is supposed to work. I actually rather enjoyed it, in spite of myself and the glaring new exhibit on gay marriage, as though the issue were on par with "of course blacks are 5/5ths of a person". The Center helped me reflect on over two centuries of American political history and come to a conclusion here of what we got right, and what went horribly wrong. I'll start with the latter.

Virtually everyone acknowledges that the fathers at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were deeply divided on the form the new government should take, or even that there was anything wrong with the Articles of Confederation in the first place. To appease all the states into ratifying, they had to make compromises on issues that seem patently absurd today, the representation of slaves in the census being only the most obvious of many.

On June 18, Alexander Hamilton made a counter-proposal to the more famous New Jersey and Virginia plans. His was a system closely mimicking the very authority he and his compatriots just overthrew: the British parliamentary government. For several hours, Hamilton laid out on the floor a plan whereby the upper house, the Senate, would have the greater share of power and hold their offices for life. The President would be elected for life so long as he maintained "good behavior" and have absolute veto power over all proposed laws. The central government would even be responsible for choosing governors for each of the states, all who have strong veto powers like the President's. These authorities would be more like the King, Lords, and Commons in Westminster, just with a slightly bourgeois twist.

It's said that the other delegates listened intently and even applauded Hamilton for the level of care and consideration he gave to the plan... but then quietly tabled it as a wholly unreasonable solution that would never earn the approval of their countrymen back home. In other words, many of the delegates; gentlemen, professionals, veteran officers, and scholars learned in the history of western civilization; silently agreed that in a more ideal world, government would be administered by optimates, a natural elite of the best men, unbeholden to the whims of the mob. There's no shortage of quotes from the Founders on the perils of democracy, such as Madison's in Federalist Papers No. 10: "Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths".

Charles Carroll, the sole Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the wealthiest man in the colonies, was perhaps the most aristocratic of all. He, like John Adams and many other founders, defended limiting the vote to men of property because of "the designs of selfish men, who are busy every where striving to throw all power into the hands of the very lowest of the People in order that they may be their masters from the abused confidence which the People has place[d] in them". Such a reasoning appears hopelessly classist and irrelevant in our century, yet was rooted in the examples of history; namely, the fear that America would follow Athens and Rome in voting themselves into bankruptcy for the sake of winning one more election.

I'd hardly sound a call for returning the vote solely to propertied white males, but merely invite you to look at what we now have. Before, it was gauche for a man to whore himself by openly campaigning for office. Perhaps it was just an act that a candidate in those early years would send his underlings out to garner votes while remaining at home or going about his usual business, then make himself out to "reservedly accept" the burden of office in the event of a win. But appearances do matter. Now, we have the very things Washington warned against in his farewell address: politicians driven by the need to win elections and uphold a party line, rather than leaders who can act independently and forge a legacy without heed to the sharks nipping at his heels. When the Democrats are in power, the Republicans rail against populist demagogues destroying the fabric of society. If it's the Republicans in charge, then the Democrats fear being held back by ignorant rednecks. The truth is even worse: that we now enjoy the worst of both worlds all at the same time.

All that said, I had, just barely, a glimmer of hope after my walk through the Constitution Center. After my affirmation of the elitist sentiments of Hamilton, Carroll, and other men of the founders' generation, you might be surprised that I'm also somewhat sympathetic to the opposite view. Especially after the recent massacre in Charleston and the ensuing burnings of black churches as though it were the 1950's all over again, I have a deep admiration, and am even perplexed, by the unending patience and forgiveness of the black communities in the South after continued offenses. It confuses me to this day, for instance, why, after the murderers of Emmett Till in 1955 openly admitted to the deed after their acquittal in an interview, that whole buses full of black Chicagoans didn't roll down to Money, Mississippi and burn the entire town to the ground. If I were a black American, I'd instinctively lean closer to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King: that peace in our time is impossible, that not only the Stars and Bars but even the Stars and Stripes should be torn down, and that there should be no compromise with a government whose houses in Washington are literally built on the backs of black slave labor. Let the entire city be razed to the ground and built anew.

And yet, as I sat through the initial presentation on the Constitution, which was given by a kindly black woman, and thought about how completely we are now able to divorce that founding document from the milieu of those Anglo-descended men who first authored it (after all, how many people today actually describe themselves as English-Americans rather than merely a bland "white"?), I do have to credit the Founders with one thing, at least: that valuing English liberty need not require actually being English.

One of John Adams's most quoted statements goes, "our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other". A free society based on English common law demands respect for the mores and sentiments whence it came. Why, for instance, does the rest of the western world think Americans are "gun nuts"? On the continent of medieval Europe, the bearing of arms was generally restricted to the elite warrior class, the knighthood. In a society where there is a tremendous gulf in any sense of social responsibility between the upper and lower classes, whether it be the rabble of pre-revolutionary France or the vast number of perpetually drunk young men in Putin's Russia today, an armed populace is more prone to crimes of passion than any meaningful resistance to a tyrannical regime. The English, on the other hand, maintained a tradition of a right, even a duty, of commoners (yeomen) to bear arms all the way back to the Saxon age. In England, the universal militias of yeoman archers were regularly used as a means of securing peace in the realm. Perhaps Henry VIII's one failure to impose his will during his entire reign was in his toothless attempts to restrict the ownership and use of early firelock arms among the commons.

Today, we can see that the right to bear arms in our society is easily abused and in danger of abolition when the social responsibilities that come with ownership (a "well-maintained militia", for one) is neglected. Whether it's the daily black-on-black violence in inner city Philadelphia or shooting sprees by disturbed young white guys in South Carolina or Colorado, both share an ignorance or disrespect for the culture of English liberty whence that right came. And the gun controversy is simply the easiest example for me to draw here; you can fill in the blanks with your own issue of choice.

The Modern Medievalist's solution, therefore, is simple. I come not to advocate re-entry to the UK, fixing the republic by a patented 12-step process that will cost you only ninety-nine installments of $999.99, telling you to vote for Bernie in 2016, or that the world will end in 2017 on the centennial of the Fatima apparitions if county clerks don't stop issuing marriage licenses to gays. Just do this: study the history of our political forebears in England and beyond. Understand the principles behind common law. Debate the meaning of natural law if you must, but at least let's agree that it stands for something more than "don't tell me how to freedom!"

I have to admit that I doubt even doing all the above will be enough to save America from a fate like Greece's or a second revolution. But I do believe that even if the United States must someday cease to exist, future generations can profit by appreciating and implementing the traditions of English liberty tested and proven throughout the centuries.... and it need not take a single Anglo-descended man to achieve it.

The last stop on today's journey: Alexander Hamilton's statue at the Constitution Center, Philadelphia.


  1. Profoundly thoughtful. Your best entry. Seriously. I was touched.

  2. Excellent! I'm an oddity! I have actually both seen an authentic copy of Magna Carta, and I've read it in it's entirety. FYI, King Henry III reissued the Charter with slight modifications in 1225, and King Edward I reissued that Charter in 1297. A few parts of the 1297 Charter are still on the UK Statute Books. The first article dealing with the Freedom of the Church and the article guaranteeing jury trials are all that's substantive and remaining. Interestingly, tho', all the repealed sections were repealed in the 19th and 20th centuries, some as late as 1963. Here is it's cite in the UK Law Database:

  3. "the designs of selfish men, who are busy every where striving to throw all power into the hands of the very lowest of the People in order that they may be their masters from the abused confidence which the People has place[d] in them"
    The poor innocents thought that these people weren't the ones with property. What a reversal.