In a previous post I wrote briefly about William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was a central figure in establishing the illegality of slavery in Britain at the end of the 18th Century. Mansfield’s judicial comments are a reminder that when greed results in an abrogation of moral responsibility then legislation is the only solution. In no other case than slavery is it more clearly apparent that good laws, along with appropriate recourse to contest bad laws, extend our freedoms.
An American Benevolent Master; Unacceptable Then, Unacceptable Now
As a European republican, slavery means something very specific to me and opposition to it lies at the heart of what it means for any of us to be truly free. Fundamental to modern republicanism is the so-called principle of ‘non-domination’ which demands that not only must an individual or group be free from arbitrary influence by another, but further, there must be no possibility of such influence. This guards against the benevolent master situation who allows his/her slaves freedom of action and possibly wealth, but could change his/her attitude at any moment.
On 20th March 1793 William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield died. It is not often that I blog in support of the memory of aristocrats and bluebloods, but there are exceptions. Mansfield is one of them.
Born in 1705 he was one of the most powerful legal figures in eighteenth century Britain, at various times holding the post of Solicitor General, Chief Justice and Attorney General. His judgements echoed the Age of Enlightenment and were instrumental in paving the way for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. One of Mansfield’s most famous cases was Somerset’s Case (1772), where he held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by positive law (Parliamentary legislation) and therefore was not binding law. While not actually abolishing slavery in the British Empire it was a vital step in that direction. Mansfield stated:
The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.
As a British republican I particularly appreciate the following quote from a 1769 case: Rex v. Wilkes
The last end that can happen to any man, never comes too soon, if he falls in support of the law and liberty of his country: for liberty is synonymous to law and government.
The nation of laws is a fundamental pillar of both European Republicanism and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. An example of Mansfield’s rationalist approach can be found in his Letters to the Right Honorable Lord Mansfield (1773)
As mathematical and absolute certainty is seldom to be attained in human affairs, reason and public utility require that judges and all mankind in forming their opinions of the truth of facts should be regulated by the superior number of the probabilities on the one side or the other whether the amount of these probabilities be expressed in words and arguments or by figures and numbers.
No person is wholly good and Mansfield was no exception, numbering opposition to press freedom, nepotism and support for British Government antagonism towards the American colonies on the opposite side of the balance. But his bravery in ruling against enslavement in Britain must surely warrant that he is remembered by history.
But they who subvert free states, and reduce them to the power of a few, are to be deemed the common enemies of all the zealous friends of liberty.
Demosthenes: The Oration for the Rhodians
In previous posts (here and here) I considered the idea of patriotism as a vibrant sense of community along with the idea of patriotism as making your country a home for liberty. In both cases I emphasised a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism, pointing to a strong international and inclusive idea which patriotism emgemders. But while the ideas sound great, are they enough to support a robust sense of patriotism?
The Poet Shelley Laid Down the Principles of Patriotism……..
In my first post I showed how some lines from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley cut through to the central issues of patriotism. I want to do so again but flesh out the ideas a little more fully and apply them to our situation today. Here is Shelley, once again from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things:
Patriot, dissolve the frightful charm, Awake thy loudest thunder, dash the brand Of stern Oppression from the Tyrant’s hand
What is Shelley saying? He is pointing out that citizens often need to be proactive in protecting their liberty. What is more, with the phrase dissolve the frightful charm he is alerting us to the fact that oppression can arise unseen until it is too late, something very relevant to our current situation. Now compare the above quote with the one from Mask of Anarchy which I used in my earlier blog post. Here is what Shelley wrote:
And shall no patriot tear the veil away Which hides these vices from the face of day?
I argued that this version of patriotism views citizens as committed to a principle of openness and justice which requires strong accountable institutions to assist them. Further, this concept is inclusive because ethnicity is irrelevant while still anchoring us to a particular community with no prejudice to other communities. Note that in Shelley’s time two hundred years ago ethnic diversity was only a tiny fraction of what it is today and ethnicity issues were less prominent. So if anything this line has grown in significance. Citizens can join us as immigrants from other regions or countries and instantly be regarded as patriotic as long as they share our ideals of justice and liberty.
…..But Was it Enough?
Such a commitment to our freedom is essential but does it have sufficient motivation for citizens to act if their liberty is threatened? If it cannot stir the emotions then maybe something more is needed. To be fair to Shelley the second passage is prescriptive of what a committed patriot should do, but inspiring a spirit of patriotism in the first place is a different issue. This is why the first extract is so important. Having revealed the vices by tearing the veil away then the second step is to take action. It is a political imperative dashing the brand of stern oppression from the tyrants hand’.
Between 14th and 17th July 1791 a period of sustained rioting convulsed Birmingham. The name given to the unrest, The Priestley Riots, derives from the most notable target of the violence, the chemist, religious dissenter and political radical Joseph Priestley (credited with discovering Oxygen). The trigger for the rioting was a dinner held at the Dadley Hotel in Temple Row organised by radicals and religious Dissenters to mark the success of the assault on the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution. Mobs opposed to the Birmingham Dissenters attacked and burned not only their homes and chapels, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society. The details, however, reveals the dark nature of establishment collusion.
According to eye witness accounts local Justices of the Peace Joseph Carles and Dr Benjamin Spencer (an Anglican vicar and, along with Carles, a member of the establishment supporting Bean Club) actively encouraged the mob. Moreover the Under Sheriff of Warwickshire, John Brooke, was heard to issue a ‘guarantee’ of judicial protection to those taking part. Prior to the 14th July banquet, various incendiary posts and leaflets were published about the event, the sources of which are still unclear but highly unlikely to be the Dissenters themselves. Likewise a cartoon was published despicting Priestley holding up a platter and saying ‘The Kings head here’. Except that Priestley was not at the dinner. Today we would call it ‘fake news’!
Events following the riots were also shocking. The magistrates (remember Brooke’s ‘guarantee’) refused to arrest any of the rioters post facto and actually released those that had been arrested at the time. When the Government forced the magisrates to try the riot ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and subverted the trials. Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were brought to trial with four convicted.
The riots revealed that the Anglican gentry in collusion with the judiciary were prepared to use violence against Dissenters whom they viewed as potential revolutionaries . Bear in mind that at that time religious and political revolution were almost synonymous and the Monarch was head of the Church of England (as remains the case). Those campaigning for the religious freedom and political reforms we enjoy today had to be prepared to face uncontrollable mobs.
Following the riots Joseph Priestley was forced to flee Birmingham and set up home in London. But things were justs as bad. Vicious political cartoons continued to be published about him, In a direct parallel to today’s ‘trolling’m letters were sent to him from across the country, comparing him to the devil and Guy Fawkes. Effigies of Priestley and Tom Paine were publicly burned.
Fake news, trolling, vicious media attacks, inciting religious hatred and establishment collusion. Sound familiar?
Who knows not that there is a mutual bond of amity and brother-hood between man and man over all the World, neither is it the English Sea that can sever us from that duty and relation…
John Milton; The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1650)
Inspiration. One of my favourite words implying a positive relationship with a person, event or entity. Among the various definitions of inspiration, this one from from the Merriam-Webster dictionaryI find particularly useful:
…the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions
It sums up the dual nature of my enthusiasm for the Good Old Cause of republicanism in its broadest sense, an idea much richer than just anti-monarchism. Let me explain by starting with the emotions.
From Milton to Shelley….
Some writers metaphorically light up my life. One of these is Richard Overton the seventeenth century radical whose pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants changed my life and the way I think about freedom. He was a Leveller and the enduring influence of him and his fellow Levellers can be seen even in the title of my blog. For example, I find this passage very powerful:
I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom…..
Richard Overton ‘An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646)
Now, there is much in Arrow to feed the intellect, but more about that later. Likewise with the wonderful prose and poetry of Overton’s near contemporary John Milton, an example of which I started this post. Speaking of poets, one has come to embody a sense of defiance and optimism for a better world like no other – Percy Bysshe Shelley (OK, him again for any regular readers of my blog!!). But where did I encounter him? Some time ago I read a post by Cliff James (he can be found on twitter as @cliffjamester), Cliff’s post was centred on Shelley’s radical poetry; of which I confess I was then largely ignorant. II started with England in 1819a mightily powerful piece of radical writing.
Over the past few months we have become accustomed to Donald Trump using the tactic of making wild, often unsubstantiated accusations about his political opponents, the judiciary and the media. Such tactics are also familiar to us in the UK by the actions of a virulent corporate owned media.
Without doubt there have been times in the past when the Prime Minister of the day has joined in such activity, but political expediency, advisors or civil servants have eventually stepped in to provide wiser council. Now, however, it appears that Theresa May has decided (assuming it is a conscious activity) that this behaviour is the new norm, implying that everyone from the European Union to Parliamentarians to the Trade Unions and beyond are conspiring to undermine her and thereby subvert the nation.
Along with the accusations come demagogic attacks on her opponents, attempting to stain their character as a dangerous saboteur or unpatriotic. So what are the outcomes of such an approach? Importantly, in keeping with the neo-Conservative mantra of a strong (and stable!!) leader driving through dramatic, damaging and possibly irreversible change to the fabric of society she can present herself as some sort of modern day Boudicca figure, holding back the hoards of hostile forces.
Whether by design or an unconscious feeling of powerlessness in the face of an unimaginably complex Brexit strategy, May is recasting disagreement as deviance, opposition as disruption, debate as subversion. Although more complex in its manifestation (at least until now) the phenomenon of McCarthyism in 1950s America shares many of these characteristics, with the original UnAmerican Activiities becoming UnBritish Activities; likewise, Senator McCarthy’s Soviet Bloc is replaced in May’s world by the European Union. During the ’50s the main effect was to close down debate and usher in a climate of fear and suspicion of your neighbour. The effects were felt way beyond politics in art, science and culture.
The rules of a democratic open society is disagreement in a dialogic manner. May is trying to substitute new rules of Government by fiat and authoritarianism. The consequences are unpredictable, terrifying and the likely loss of treasured liberties
In 1687 the great English astronomer Edmund Halley (of the comet fame) sent an inscribed copy (image left) of Isaac Newton’s freshly published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory. Think about this for a moment. A copy of the most important thesis of the day (the foundation of Gravitational Theory and Mechanics) by an English scientist sent to an Italian scientist working in a French observatory. This pattern repeats itself decade after decade, century after century, right back to the dawn of civilisation. Indeed one theory of archeology now views Stonehenge as the epicentre of a Britano-Near European network.
Now, I am as proud as anyone of our great history of Shakespeare and Shelley, Newton and Darwin, Turner and Constable, Stephenson and Brunel, Locke and Hume. I am also proud of the work the establishment wants to forget, by Tom Paine for example or James Harrington or Algernon Sidney. But in this post I want to place the work of these greats in context, as part of progress viewed as relationships cultivated with colleagues throughout Europe and beyond. They are classed as some of the greatest luminaries, but not exceptional in the sense that they stand apart from other greats. It is the relationships which count as much as anything.
Magna Carta was part of a pan-European movement….
My Halley-Cassini example dates from the 17th Century when the Age of Enlightenment was getting under way. But I want to briefly travel further back to 1215 and the iconic Magna Carta. A mountain of literature has been generated by the Great Charter along with some grandiose claims. For example, it is purported to be the birth document of democracy, which it isn’t and a protector of liberties, but only for some. What is important is that it placed limits on the king’s power which was subject to the law. But charters were common in early medieval Europe both individually in terms of personal wills and in more general terms through the granting of rights and privileges to groups of people such as towns and cities. Some included promises of protection and justice by a King but the most important charters were issued by the Pope as Papal Bulls.
Of importance was the so-called “Statute of Palmiers‘ issued three years earlier than Magna Carta in 1212 and the earliest constitutional document of France. Issued by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (his son, also Simon, is more well known to us as playing a crucial role in the founding of Parliament), the Statute was sealed and guaranteed by six French bishops. It includes more than fifty clauses, prohibiting the sale of justice, dealing with the rights of heirs and widows, and promising not to enforce military service from his tenants except in return for pay. Through de Montfort and others the Statute of Palmiers was known in England and covers much the same ground. But in turn, Magna Carta influenced Europe. For example, the Golden Bull (a Bull was a kind of seal, by the way) of 1222 was a charter issued by King Andrew II of Hungary under duress from his nobles. Like Magna Carta this was one of the first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. So though Magna Carta was unique in scope and ambition it was fully in keeping with developments elsewhere.
….while the Age of Enlightenment was truly international collaboration.
Now back to my first example. The Age of Enlightenment was a supreme example of natural philosophers, political thinkers and artists collaborating across international boundaries, this time including North America. For example, American founding father Benjamin Franklin visited Europe frequently and contributed actively to scientific and political debates here, returning with the latest ideas to Philadelphia. Vital to the development of the Age of Enlightenment was a separate but associated phenomenon which has been termed the Republic of Letters. It started in the literary sphere and was initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke. The Republic of Letters was facilitated by more efficient transport in the Seventeenth Century and secure postal services grew rapidly New associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. Similar societies sprang up in France and Germany and were vital in helping local intellectuals contact like-minded thinkers elsewhere in the Republic of Letters
The political and social transnational effects were cataclysmic. The English Revolution of 1642-1649, combined with the work of emigrant Englishman Tom Paine was a vital influence on the American Revolution which in turn hugely influenced events in Europe during the French Revolution. In science the aforementioned Edmund Halley travelled all over Europe before influencing Newton’s decision to publish his ideas on gravitation which changed the course of science, helping to bring about our modern world. English and Scottish thinkers were crucial participants, but were dependant on ideas gathered through the relationships with workers in other parts of the world.
So what is my point? It is not to belittle the contributions of British (or English/Welsh/Scots/Irish in earlier eras) thinkers and politicians to world developments. But much of the rhetoric of the British press in papers such as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun is now devoted to an exceptionalist view of Britain as being unusual or extraordinary in every way. It is tied to an agenda which I drew attention to in an earlier post. For individuals a sense of exceptionalism damages personal relationships and the same is true of nations. This can only harm our position with the rest of Europe and the world which can only do us (and them) harm. Ironically one of the conscious aims of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters was a measure of independence from Governments and overbearing authority (partly why it was called a Republic). Whatever the outcome of Brexit and the current sweep of neo-conservative nationalism it is vital not to lose sight of the crucial role of transnational relationships, no matter how brilliant or able the individuals of particular countries prove to be. Mutual respect is vital, relationships matter!