An Essential Heritage And Sacred Trust
Over recent months we have been gradually working through The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs. [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.] It is proving to be an excellent read.
While modern representative government, underpinned by the constitution of Great Britain, has taken centuries to develop, Tombs argues that from very early on the nation of England was synonymous with representative bodies meeting and advising the king. It turns out that government via representatives of the people is not a novelty at all.
In the two hundred years following Alfred the Great (roughly 900 to 1100AD) a precursor to modern representative government was practised. According to Tombs,
There was a regular system of participation in government.Of course the times of the Tudors and the Stewarts saw the belief and practice of other doctrines--in particular, the absolutist notion of the Divine Right of kings. But the sequence of events leading thereafter to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and to the subsequent Bill of Rights (1689) which became a fundamental document of England (and Britain) in our (the Modern) age, was a "throwback".
The warrior nobility, "thegns," and free peasants, "ceorls" ("churls"), met in shire courts and local monthly courts in every hundred (a subdivision of the shire). Tens of thousands of men took part in levying taxes, enforcing the law, hearing royal commands, and when necessary taking up arms.
At the age of twelve, every freeman took an oath of loyalty to the king and obedience to the law--a practice that continued for many centuries. To represent the whole kingdom, a gathering of thegns and prelates, the "witan" ("the councillors"), was summoned by the king at various places, sometimes traditional open-air sites, to take part in ceremonies, give advice, settle disputes, try cases of treason, or endorse royal acts. It was crucial at times of danger and of disputed succession. . . .
Though there were representative bodies in other parts of Europe, there ere few if any national representative bodies like this. The ability of the English rulers to raise taxation and manpower was unequalled in Europe, and it required this unique degree of involvement and consent by local communities, including even relatively humble subjects. [Ibid., p.36f.]
It seems that it many ways, given the high degree of citizen participation in government much earlier, the Bill of Rights was "going back to the future."
What else can we learn from our ancient past? How about an oath of loyalty to Her Majesty's government and obedience to the law to be taken by every twelve year old citizen? And voting from age twelve onwards? Why ought we assume that our ancient forbears were more mature at twelve than the youth of our day? Or why should we assume that our modern twelve year olds are unfit to take such oaths? Do we really mean to imply that modern youth are immature, callow, and irresponsible? And there we were thinking that the received wisdom of our day is that our youth are the best, the smartest, the most sophisticated of any generation yet seen. After all, they can play games on cell phones. All of these ancient rituals would help bind our young into the duties and responsibilities and privileges of adulthood, on the one hand, and citizenship on the other. Such rituals would help preserve our sense of duty and our liberties.
Mmmm. The Jewish Bar Mitzvah is at twelve years old. Our ancient forbears were sitting in public forums passing judgement in courts at age twelve. But we are much more advanced and sophisticated. Even at thirty there are many who have never held a job, never vowed loyalty to anyone, let alone Her Majesty's government, Rather, they spend their hours productively in the homes of their parents, playing video games long into the night.
We are so advanced, so sophisticated. So childish.