Defiance Quotes

Beowulf & The Founders:

Joel has posted a deeply thoughtful reply to the series of posts we've had recently here at Grim's Hall. Nothing delights me more than having spirited and thoughtful companions who both can and will dispute ideas with me. As the man in the Chesterton poem at the sidebar, I love no one better than the people who will fight with me.

Joel raises some excellent points, to which I will reply.

I. On the Question of Breaks with the Past

One thing Joel notes is that the Founders made several attempts to eliminate traditional ways of considering ancestry or nobility in their form of government. "While [ancestry] obviously worked for Beowulf and his contemporaries anything remotely resembling this as a basis for citizen rights was rejected by the wise men who created our republic." I believe it is the case that the Founders looked precisely to the Anglo-Saxons for their concept of rights, including the most fundamental right -- the right of revolution.

I would like first to take a moment to underline a part of the debate that has happened in the comments. AH and I were discussing the particular cultural heritage out of which the Founding grew. We agreed on this formula:

Our vision of what God ought to envision for us, if he exists, is cultural. The particular culture is more or less the Anglosphere, as you say -- it's that part of the world that was directly subject to the Greco-Roman tradition, and also the Northern Heroic tradition. This includes neither Greece nor Rome (which were never settled by Northern heroes) nor the North itself (which encountered the Greco-Roman tradition only late and from afar, rather than having Roman institutions engraved on it by Rome's legions and/or the early church).

It does, however, include America, which inherited its base culture from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland -- and particularly the Scottish Enlightenment, which was the important wing of the Enlightenment to the Founders. It's why we can reach back to the Icelandic sagas or the Greek epic poems with equal ease. American culture has been pretty successful, at home, in integrating others from other cultures into that basic form. That's the new thing, as of the Enlightenment -- the idea of extending the deal to anyone who would embrace it and fight for it, and therefore thinking of rights as "human" rights rather than "our" rights.
It's correct to say, as Joel does, that the Founders wanted to make a serious break with their immediate past -- the rules against nobility and titles, bills of attainder, and so forth were to correct abuses of the British system. It is also true, however, that the Founders looked greatly to the deeper past for inspiration. This is obvious in their naming of their institutions, the Senate for example; and in their letters and readings, such as Jefferson's letter on the source of rights, entitled, "Saxons, Constitutions, and a Case of Pious Fraud" and this letter on the same subject -- the importance of the Anglo Saxons to his Constitutional thinking.

Most importantly, however, is the fundamental issue of the Revolution: the right of the People to cast down an existing king or government, and replace it with one that suited them better. This was the critical issue of the day, as it was the difference between whether the American project was fundamentally legitimate and right, or fundamentally treason.

Let us compare three sentiments.

1018: The speech of Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker:
But the king we have now got allows no man to presume to talk with him, unless it be what he desires to hear. On this alone he applies all his power, while he allows his scat-lands [territories paying protection money to the Swedes] in other countries to go from him through laziness and weakness. He wants to have the Norway kingdom laid under him, which no Swedish king before him ever desired, and therewith brings war and distress on many a man. Now it is our will, we bondes, that thou King Olaf make peace with the Norway king, Olaf the Thick, and marry thy daughter Ingegerd to him. Wilt thou, however, reconquer the kingdoms in the east countries which thy relations and forefathers had there, we will all for that purpose follow thee to the war. But if thou wilt not do as we desire, we will now attack thee, and put thee to death; for we will no longer suffer law and peace to be disturbed. So our forefathers went to work when they drowned five kings in a morass at the Mula-thing, and they were filled with the same insupportable pride thou hast shown towards us. Now tell us, in all haste, what resolution thou wilt take.
1320: The Declaration of Arbroath:
[F]rom these countless evils we have been set free, by the help of Him Who though He afflicts yet heals and restores, by our most tireless Prince, King and Lord, the Lord Robert. He, that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, met toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Macabaeus or Joshua and bore them cheerfully. Him, too, divine providence, his right of succession according to or laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all have made our Prince and King. To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by law and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.

Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom -- for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.
1776: The speech of Samuel Adams:
From the day on which an accommodation takes place between England and America, on any other terms than as independent States, I shall date the ruin of this country. a politic minister will study to lull us into security by granting us the full extent of our petitions. The warm sunshine of influence would melt down the virtue which the violence of the storm rendered more firm and unyielding. In a state of tranquillity, wealth, and luxury, our descendants would forget the arts of war and the noble activity and zeal which made their ancestors invincible. Every art of corruption would be employed to loosen the bond of union which renders our resistance formidable. When the spirit of liberty, which now animates our hearts and gives success to our arms, is extinct, our numbers will accelerate our ruin and render us easier victims to tyranny. Ye abandoned minions of an infatuated ministry, if peradventure any should yet remain among us, remember that a Warren and Montgomery are numbered among the dead. Contemplate the mangled bodies of your countrymen, and then say, What should be the reward of such sacrifices? Bid us and our posterity bow the knee, supplicate the friendship, and plow, and sow, and reap, to glut the avarice of the men who have let loose on us the dogs of war to riot in our blood and hunt us from the face of the earth? If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom--go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!
The first two pieces affirm the right the Founders exercised, the right of rebellion against kings. The third, actually by one of the Founders, not only affirms that right but makes the other point I wished to make about "countrymen" -- that those who would not fight for the liberty of their countrymen were, in Samuel Adams' view, not deserving of the name. It echoes what the Scots said of Robert the Bruce: that they would fight for him if he fought for them, and otherwise would drive him out.

This basic issue was well settled and cemented among the ancient Vikings; among the Scots, who had heavy cultural borrowing from the Vikings in the period from 800-1100, and echoes perfectly what the Founders had to say. Jefferson adds his own examples from the English period: the popular revolts against the Stuarts, and throughout the Normal period.
And although [the Anglo-Saxon] constitution was violated and set at naught by Norman force, yet force cannot change right. A perpetual claim was kept up by the nation, by their perpetual demand of a restoration of their Saxon laws; which shews they were never relinquished by the will of the nation. In the pullings and haulings for these antient rights, between the nation, and its kings of the races of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, there was sometimes gain, and sometimes loss, until the final re-conquest of their rights from the Stuarts.
In this sense, I believe it is right to say that the Founders were very close to the ancient idea of citizenship. They also believed that countrymen must fight for each others' liberties, and that citizens had a right to wage war against governments that were oppressive of their ancient rights. Jefferson in particular was deeply interested in the Anglo-Saxon view, and as a reading of the "Pious Fraud" letter will show, considered it the real foundation of the Republic's system. "[T]he common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed."

So yes, the model I suggest is closely related to the Germanic warrior cultures. That is the very model that the Founders themselves preferred, and it may be that their thinking on the nature of citizenship is closer to it, and more inspired by it, than Joel has previously understood.

II. On Ancestry

Joel is right to say that the Founders had no use for nobility, and objected strongly to contemporary British practices such as bills of attainder. That does not imply that they cared nothing for the concept that society was a generational project, however. That issue, separate from the idea of nobility, is too basic a thing for them to set aside.

Nor did they. Citizenship in the United States passes to the children of citizens, with the sole exception being those children born abroad who do not bother to come and claim their citizenship before they turn 18 years of age.

More importantly, they require natural born citizenship for any candidate for the Presidency. This shows that, for the highest office in the land, they considered it important not merely that you be a citizen, but that you come from a family that had shown a generational commitment to the nation.

On the issue of citizen powers, too, the Founders explicitly considered ancestry: they restricted voting rights on the question of both sex and ancestry. They also used ancestry to opt "out" an entire group of people: slaves and their descendants.

III. The Importance of Supporting the Society

Joel also writes, "Human rights come into existence with the birth of the individual. They are not based on the worth, or potential worth, of the individual as a warrior or supporter of society."

The Founders certainly did not believe that when it came to at least some rights, such as voting rights. Property requirements were common among the early states and Federal elections. Property was thought at the time to serve as a proxy for what I am talking about here: it restricted the franchise to those who could show that they were personally responsible for some of the community's wealth and prosperity. This concept has waned in America -- and I do not mean to suggest that I believe that we should reinstitute property requirements, any more than I mean to suggest that I think we should exclude people from voting because of race. I do mean, however, to suggest that the Founders explicitly considered this issue in the case of who should be allowed to vote and participate in the government.

In addition, the role of the individual citizen as "warrior" was also explicit in the founding documents, and the private writings of the Founders. Joel is, and Grim's Hall readers are, sufficiently familiar with the early concept of a militia that it needs no rehersal here. All male citizens -- a class that includes everyone who would be allowed to vote, in other words -- were (and are) considered part of the militia, with a personal duty to fight for the defense of the society. Some states had laws regulating precisely how they were required to arm themselves, or establishing regular drills.

Militia service was more important to the Founders than is easy to understand today. The Constitution provides what was intended as a limit on the concept of a standing army, by preventing the Congress from authorizing appropriations for it more than two years at a time. The Founders believed the militia would be the primary defense of the United States -- although, as Eric Blair has pointed out, Washington himself knew early on that a professional soldier class would be necessary.

Nevertheless, again, the Founders' vision explictly assumed that you would perform these duties. In order to be a citizen entitled to participate in voting or holding office, you had to show that you supported the society's prosperity, and you had a personal duty to its defense. Both concepts are explicit in the law and the writings of the day.

IV. Leadership and Privilege

Joel is perfectly correct to write that "Because the Founders believed that sovereignty rested with the people their views on rights and government recognized the inherent worth of the individual beyond and separate from the individual’s use as a potential soldier for the state." As described above, the Founders joined the Norse and the Scots and the Anglo-Saxons in their belief that the state existed to protect the people's ancient rights, not that the people -- as in Persia -- existed to serve the state.

He misunderstands, however, both my claim about this and also the Beowulf's. He writes: "In a warrior based society ancestry is often seen as a legitimate claim to leadership and privilege within the group. While this obviously worked for Beowulf and his contemporaries..."

It is "often" the case that a warrior based society produces that form of leadership. It was not the case among the Anglo-Saxons, however. The Anglo-Saxon kings were elected by a process very similar to our Electoral College: a council of elder statesmen who chose the king from among several candidates. These candidates included the sons of the current king, if he had any, but were not limited to them. In cases where there was no son, the candidates were all chosen from those who were currently great men.

This was the occasion for the Norman invasion, in fact: the Anglo-Saxon council elected Harold Godwinson, a member of a prominent house who had supported the previous king, Edward Confessor. Though Edward had no sons, he named a preferred choice, a young kinsman of his. The elders passed him over in favor of Harold, who had shown the capacity to organize the nation's affairs and defense. He did so successfully shortly thereafter in a battle with the greatest Viking of his day, Harald Hardrada, "The Thunderbolt of the North"; only days after that, the Normans' suprise invasion forced a weary army into a second battle near Hastings.

As for the Beowulf, it is noteworthy that Beowulf himself is not of a kingly line. He assumes the kingship of the Geats on the strength of his deeds, not his ancestry. His ancestry does entitle him to be considered, but only in the narrow sense that it identifies him as a member of the society established by the Geats -- it's not likely that they would have considered a Swede for the job. It is his deeds that cause the Geats to choose him.

John Grisby has written (in Beowulf & Grendel) that kingship passing along family lines was an innovation among the peoples of northern Europe at that time; he sees the backstory of the Beowulf as a tale about the hardships among the Danes arising from Hrothgar's breaking the ancient, sacral kingship and supplanting it with a hereditary form.

In any event, the Founders' ideas about ancestry and service are very similar to these ideas of the Anglo-Saxons. They also believed a President (whom some of them even had wanted to call a King) should be someone of generational commitment to the project, a son of a citizen as well as a citizen; and they believed all citizens had an explicit duty to the defense of the state. They also, however, believed in an Electoral College.

I think this rebuttal is already long enough that I should give Joel a chance to respond at leisure here; if I go much further, he won't have enough leisure to get to it. :) Let us pause, then, and see what he has to say. I thank him again for the opportunity to debate and examine our magnificient heritage, which he and I both admire to the greatest degree.

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