All Commentary
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America

On the Origins of the Baffling Reverence for Government

Explaining and, worse, legitimizing the state occupied sixteenth- and seventeenth-century philosophers in England and Europe. Even as the beast they dissected exiled or imprisoned them and ravaged their countries with civil war, they worried about the intricacies of absolute monarchy. How exactly did God ordain it, and do men owe obligations beyond abject submission to their king? Is a monarchy not only absolute but unified, or does the sovereign share his power with “lesser magistrates”? If the latter, does the king’s authority move with him from palace to Parliament, so that his partners in crime bask in the reflected glow? Is there room for contractual relations between a sovereign and his subjects? And is that contract voided when the sovereign becomes tyrannical? Is it even possible for a sovereign to be tyrannical? After all, if law proceeds from the sovereign and is to be obeyed rather than questioned, how can we mere mortals call some dictates just and others, well, dictatorial?

Not only did these policy-wonk questions intrigue pundits, they inspired such events in British history as the Long Parliament, the Puritan Revolution, the Commonwealth, and so on. In The Politics of Liberty, Professor Lee Ward, who teaches political science at Campion College, University of Regina (Canada), correlates his philosophical history to the political one and coincidentally proves how very much ideas really matter. He traces the development of thought, repellant though it is, on the extent and morality of the state’s authority from Sir Robert Filmer, Hugo Grotius, and Thomas Hobbes through Samuel Pufendorf and such Whig philosophers as James Tyrrell, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and Cato (that is, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, authors of Cato’s Letters). His book concludes with the transformation of these ideas by James Otis, Thomas Paine,Thomas Jefferson, and other Americans.

And thank heaven they were transformed. Filmer argues unabashedly that the monarch is sovereign. Indeed, his king sits so far above the law that the royal nostrils may bleed. Filmer credits the biblical account of Adam’s creation for this. Supposedly, when God gave Adam dominion over the earth (Gen 1: 28–29), Adam became a literal and utter dictator.

Never mind that the context of these verses is dominion over the natural world, not the political one. God is not establishing Adam as a sort of primeval Stalin; rather, Adam is humanity’s representative, with God offering nature to mankind so that we may harness it for our advantage.

Ward next shows how Hobbes and Grotius fine tuned Filmer’s points. For example, they debate endlessly whether subjects have any right to rebel, even under the worst of conditions, including the threat of imminent death.

The early Whigs don’t offer much refuge from such lunacy. James Tyrrell wastes time and energy proving that Adam’s authority over his sons was a general one common to all fathers, rather than a specific right granted to Adam alone. He frets over whether human liberty is alienable and decides it is, though no man would be foolish enough to give away his freedom. Perhaps not, but some philosophers are foolish enough to abet those who steal it.

To this point, the quibbling resembles that between modern Republicans and Democrats, with all the nonsensical nuances of the argument over Social Security, for instance. And just as the parties don’t step back from the trees long enough to recommend clear-cutting the forest, neither do these philosophers. Bit by bit, they feed off and slightly temper the others’ enthusiasm for government. Along the way, almost accidentally, they take baby steps toward stifling the state.

With Algernon Sidney, however, comes a giant leap for mankind. He slashes and burns Filmer with a point-by-point refutation from the Bible. Locke, Cato, and the Americans take an even bigger leap into territory more familiar to us and far more palatable.

Professor Ward tells a tale that begins so sickeningly it makes tough reading for anyone who loves liberty. But hang in there: things improve in the middle and wax positively rosy by the time Locke and company ride to the rescue.

The Politics of Liberty explains some of the baffling reverence for government plaguing us today. Much of it can be traced to Filmer, Hobbes, and the other apologists for government whom Ward discusses. Their pernicious presuppositions still stalk among us like vampires. Understanding these presuppositions allows us to track the vampires to their lairs so we can drive stakes through their hearts. This book provides not only a map to the lairs, but the stakes as well.