A Brit’s Musings on the 4th of July

There was some amusement among the congregation of Trinity Cathedral on Sunday when the Dean announced that Canon Mark was to give the 4th of July sermon. After all, what can a Brit have to say about rebellion against the lawful authority of the Crown? Well as it happens, the answer to the question is, quite a bit!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government ….

The concept of “we the people”  does not spring fully formed out of the purity of the 18th Century air breathed in the 13 Colonies. That the Colonists could even hold a concept of ‘we the people’ places them squarely at the center of the long march of British political culture. The irony lies that in breaking with the Crown the 13 Colonies were simply asserting the ancient British right not to be taxed without representation.

I can only  trace in outline the roots of what made the American Revolution possible. For a more in-depth exploration I direct you, if you are interested, to a section of Charles Taylor’s great tome A Secular Age pp 196-207. For those who are overcome at the very thought I suggest you listen to the the first of Niall Ferguson’s lectures in the current Reith Lecture’s series at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/reith

The great events of the English Civil War, Great Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and it Bill of Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 are but successive chapters in the same story. What connects them is that they are events that draw upon the idea of an “ancient constitution” embedded in a shared cultural belief the origins of which while obscured in the mists of time, yet persists in the common political awareness of the English people. This “ancient constitution” is the necessary ingredient that gives rise to the concept of  “we the people” . This is a concept unique to English and its successive British political and institutional culture.  The British historian of the Monarchy, David Starkey, traces the roots of this sense of an “ancient constitution”to the political structure of Anglo-Saxon England. In Anglo-Saxon society political power was dispersed to the local level. The country was divided into a series of units known as Hundreds. Each Hundred was autonomous and practiced a rough system of representative democracy. It seems that despite 500 years of monarchical centralization following the Norman Conquest this cultural memory of a time before, was never lost.

Resultingly, in 1642, after 20years of political struggle with Charles I the English Parliament asserted its right to govern alongside the Crown. The assertion of this right required the execution of the King. Yet, this was no 1917 Bolshevik action. It was an unfortunate necessity in the constitutional assertion of ancient privileges.

In 1688 the Glorious Revolution replaced the last Stuart King James II with William of Orange and James’ daughter Mary (William and Mary). The Glorious Revolution established Constitutional Monarchy along side the emergence of what we now recognize as Representative Democracy. This paved the way for a huge expansion in the representative nature in the institutions of British Society. The American Colonists brought with them this system of representative democracy based on elected assemblies. The parliamentary strata was the only form of colonial government. With the exception of the Colonial Governors, appointed by the Crown, elected assemblies flourished in the absence of the hereditary and appointed strata of king, Lords and Bishops,

At the core of this representative culture lay the axiom  no taxation without representation. When the 13 Colonies asserted themselves against the encroachment on their ancient privileges by an over bearing Executive Government they were simply asserting their right as British subjects to defend their ancient privileges against a swing of the pendulum of government in an oppressive direction. In this sense they were only following their parliamentary forefathers who had done the same in 1642 and 1688.

The English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution all rest on a looking backwards to an idealized notion of an “ancient constitution” . This “ancient constitution’ was not only a harking back to a time out of mind . It persisted because it was based on notions of Natural Law and enshrined in the English Common Law.  In the absence of a written constitution the Common Law has always been the ultimate protector of the rights of the Englishmen against tyranny.  What the Founding Fathers did in writing the Constitution was to codify the spirit of the “ancient constitution”.

The Founding Fathers also drew on French political theorists for the Constitution and a new form of government based on separation of powers and checks and balances. However, the stable aftermath of the American Revolutionary period can be sharply distinguished from the more than 100 years of political blood letting which followed the French Revolution. The essential difference according to Charles Taylor between the French and American experience lay in the fact that unlike the French, the new Americans were heirs to a longer representative social and political tradition that found articulation in the unifying concept of  “we the people”.

“We the people” is an appeal and idealized order of  Natural Law, in the invocation of “truths held self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence. The (American) transition was easier, because what was understood as traditional laws gave an important place to elected assemblies and their consent to taxation. All that was needed was to shift the balance in these so as to make elections the only source of legitimate power. (Charles Taylor 197)

I believe the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution which followed it, can be seen as major advances in the long march of the British political tradition. In the years since 1776 we have seen on both sides of the Atlantic divergent developments in the culture of government. Yet, the broader culture of representative institutions based on a notion of  a people able to articulate their social and political relationships through notions of common privileges and obligations has remained and continues to link these two now quite different forms of representative democracy.

As a British Subject, I congratulate my American host culture. I  fully enter into the celebrations of the 4th of July  as an American celebration of a deeper political and cultural heritage held in common between us.

About relationalrealities

Episcopal Priest currently Rector of St Martin's Providence, RI
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