July 1, 2017


American Culture: A Story (Bruce Frohnen, May 2017, Imaginative Conservative)

[I]n the interest of brevity, I will skip just a bit further forward, to Mount Sinai. Following Russell Kirk,[1] we can pick the story up here because it set the Israelites apart from their neighbors in a politically crucial way. I refer, of course, to the handing down by God of the Ten Commandments; a transformative, defining moment for the Israelites, and for those whom they influenced.

Some point out that the Ten Commandments were not all that different from other codes, like the Code of Hammurabi. But that is not the point. The point is that it was Hammurabi's code, a law handed down by a supposedly sacred political power, who saw himself as the creator of right and wrong--just as, I would argue, our liberal friends tend to see both law and government. Moses, on the other hand, gave the Israelites God's law, and thereby established a higher law tradition, according to which worldly governors can be judged by standards higher than their own will.

Again in the interest of brevity, I will just mention some other parts of the story: man's discovery of the powers of reason in Greece; our training in the virtues of republican government in Rome; I even will skip over the utterly transformative moment in a later Jerusalem, when God saved man's transcendent humanity by Himself becoming Man, and, through His death and resurrection, making clear our duty to love one another as ourselves. I instead will move to a lesser-known part of the story, set in early medieval Rome. For it was here that the Pope won the struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor, and gained the right to appoint bishops, which formerly had been appointed by the emperor himself.

So what?

So, this victory institutionalized Mount Sinai. It set up a separate religious authority, independent of the state, which would tell kings they were behaving wrongly, even excommunicate them and tell their subjects they owed them no allegiance. That investiture struggle institutionalized the higher law tradition and made natural law the standard of all governments and societies in the west. It made possible the Great Charter of Britain, which guaranteed the rights of the church, of the barons, and of the towns, in the face of a centralizing king. And that charter--and others like it on the continent--made possible the flourishing of towns, guilds, parishes, families, and other associations, which gained their own chartered rights, along with the ability and will to defend them.

Strong associations meant a multiplicity of authorities, protecting both communal and independent action through legal and customary rights. They also constituted a diversity of groups within which one acted, and to which one could look for protection. This diversity, these groups, and these rights came into bad odor in the era of absolutism and centralization. But, for a variety of reasons we need not go into, in Britain in particular there was resistance to this centralizing trend, which said, "There can be only one sovereign, one source of power and authority." Instead, there continued a healthy--though unfortunately difficult and at times bloody--competition among social and political authorities.

It was in the midst of this competition that the first settlers came to America. Many of them were seeking money. They had troubles. Others, for a long time the more successful settlers, were seeking to set up communities of faith and virtue, to follow the way of their Lord in common. Most of the colonies had their own charters, as well as an ocean keeping British authority safely distant, and allowing them to become self-governing local societies, themselves made up of largely self-governing communities. Self-government became second nature.

There was an abortive attempt to change all this, which we tend to forget, but which earlier Americans kept vividly in their minds. In 1688, as he was trying to consolidate power in Britain, James II also sought to consolidate power in America, erasing borders, dismissing legislatures, and assuming full sovereignty. The colonists resisted, fiercely. I skip over the rather nasty anti-Catholicism that was a part of this resistance because that is what adults do; because the fact that a sin was involved does not mean that it was either the cause of, or caused by, the event. The point is, the Glorious Revolution became a defining moment for Americans because it was not simply a British event; it also was American. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 showed, to both peoples, the increasing power of charters, and of petitions of grievances charging kings with violating inherited rights, to defend pre-existing ways of life.

Posted by at July 1, 2017 5:26 PM