Sunday, June 29, 2003


Much of English history is to a large degree also the history of modern-day Americans and Australians so I think there is a lot of interest in this historical vignette showing that the English attitude to civil liberties and the power of the State has always been different:

Background: We all know how Elizabeth I was famous for her tolerance in religious and other matters. Her statement that she did not want to make a "window into men's souls" is best known in that connection but she also at one stage reproached that great bureaucrat and religious tyrant, King Philip II of Spain, by asking him -- as any modern-day libertarian might have -- "Why cannot Your Majesty let your subjects go to the Devil in their own way?" She also respected Parliament and when Parliament was getting heated about the sales taxes of the day (government-granted monopolies), she abolished most of them -- making probably the first big tax cut in English history.

When she died, however, she was succeded not by an English king but by the Stuart King of Scotland, James I. And note that the attitude of the Scottish Stuarts towards the relationship between the individual and the State differed from traditional English views from the very outset. Note this report of an incident on the initial journey to London of James I:

He ordered a pickpocket to be hanged straight away without trial. The prudish English were too dainty for 'Jedburgh justice', which hanged Border robbers out of hand. They muttered tiresome objections about their Common Law, and Sir John Harington, that privileged wag, proclaimed loudly: 'If the new King hangs a man before he is tried, will he then try a man before he has offended?'

(Quoted from p. 172 of That Great Lucifer: A portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh by Margaret Irwin [Bungay, Suffolk: Reprint Society, 1960])

So the fact that the son of James I (Charles I) eventually got into such trouble with Parliament that they beheaded him was more than a personal mistake. It reflected a deep culture clash between English individualism and the much more tyrannical rule that was accepted as normal by others. Not much has changed since.


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