The Ancient Constitution and the Languages of Political Thought
This blog accompanies Mark Goldie’s Retrospect article ‘The Ancient Constitution and the Languages of Political Thought’.
Appeals to the past have great rhetorical and political power. They provide a sense of continuity and venerable antiquity, and they betoken a community subsisting through time and having a profound sense of the value and virtue of its way of conducting its affairs. For many centuries the English supposed – arguably still suppose – that they had an ‘ancient constitution’, grounded in the pre-eminence of parliament and in the specialness of the common law tradition. Although parliament is in fact a medieval institution, it was long supposed to have roots in the Saxon ‘witenagemot’: we still have the word ‘moot’, meaning a deliberative assembly. If Saxonism was partly mythic, the common law is real enough, a legal system that depends not on the diktats of rulers, but on the practices of courts, judges, and citizen juries. The story of English liberty was routinely told, not as an abstract philosophical doctrine, but as an ancient (and peculiarly national) inheritance. These ideas of popular representation and law grounded in the community could be mobilized against over-mighty monarchs and other elites, and the mythos of the ‘Ancient Constitution’ served political movements from the time of the Civil Wars onwards. The Parliamentarians and Levellers spoke of it, so did the Wilkites in the eighteenth century, and the Chartists in the nineteenth.
Yet the concept of an ‘Ancient Constitution’ is in several ways problematic. The practices of the common law have no logical dependence on Saxonism and the two notions, the one juridical and the other historical, can pull apart. Then there is the profound problem of sovereignty. If a monarch, or a parliament, is the sovereign source of law, then it surely trumps tradition and convention. Once the theory of sovereignty took hold, from the sixteenth century onward, it became harder to insist on the impregnability of ancient constitutionalism. Furthermore, by the eighteenth century, theorists began to say that it was fantastic to hold that liberty in a modern commercial society was the fruit of the ‘barbarous’ ages; rather it had evolved after Saxon and medieval times. Finally, there is the question of Englishness. The myth can seem parochial, a story of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, of independence from Roman Law and Continental autocracy. Yet the myth had Europe-wide counterparts, and many nations drew heavily upon the same source, the Roman author Tacitus, whose Germania (98 CE) described a culture of Germanic freedom, subsisting ‘in the woods’, beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
My essay explores the nature of the myth of the Ancient Constitution, its manifestations over three centuries, and its historical and conceptual difficulties. It opens with some reflections on the reasons why historians of political thought speak of ‘languages’ of past political thought, by which they mean the toolkit which political writers use to articulate and promote visions of political society. I suggest that the study of early modern political thought has recently been too much focused on the languages of natural law and classical republicanism, and should pay more heed to the extraordinarily endemic vocabulary of ancient constitutionalism.
Read Mark’s article in full for free
Main image credit: Aristotle at his writing-desk. Miniature in the manuscript Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. phil. gr. 64, fol. 8v. Wikimedia