Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
What Is Anglo-American Nationalism?
As nationalism continues to increase its presence on the American political stage, those supporting it find themselves variously accused of embracing some kind of narrow-minded, anti-democratic, even racist outlook. American nationalism was always far from partaking in such notions—and until recently, so ubiquitous as to be for the most part unspoken. But it is exactly for this reason that many of its adherents find themselves today at a loss when trying to define explicitly its foundations and character. Most Americans sense that the views of such nationalists as Hamilton and Clay, or Lincoln and Grant, have nothing to do with “blood-and-soil”–style ideas professed by European and American ethno-racialists. They are also aware that American nationalism is quite different from the “creedal nation” touted by latter-day Jeffersonians, both Democrats and Republicans, who posit that Americans are united solely by a belief in universalist Lockean ideas found in the Declaration of Independence. In other words, most Americans tend to know immediately what their nationalism is not, while having a harder time defining positively what it is.
This essay aims to address the issue by sketching the traditional foundations of English national identity as they emerged as far back as the Middle Ages, and by showing how they shape to this day the notions of English-speaking societies, including America, about what a nation is.
The earliest foundations of Anglo-American nationalism are in a set of ideas found in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) about what nations are, ideas that were later adopted and fostered in England and America. In the Bible, humanity is early on divided into nations by a conjunction of two separate foundational events, which make all nations a combination of descent and culture. The first foundational event is the birth of nations after the Deluge from the children of Noah and their descendants; the second event is the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babylon. The two even appear in immediate succession in the book of Genesis (chapters 9–11), therefore making all biblical nations a product of some combination of descent and language. This process also defines affinity between nations, so that, for example, the Israelites, descending from Abraham whose family dwelt among the Arameans, retained a kinship with that nation: “And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous’ ” (Deut. 26:5). Another example are the Canaanites being sometimes referred to as one people, at others as seven peoples (Deut. 7:1).
An explicit and influential example of the impact of this biblical scheme is to be found in John Selden’s foundational Mare clausum, which together with Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum established modern international maritime law. Published in 1635, Selden’s book opens his study of land and sea boundaries between nations with the biblical account in the book of Genesis of the division of the world into possessions by the posterity of Noah, “everie one after his Tongue, after their Families, in their Nations; as it is recorded by Moses.” Significantly, the quote chosen by Selden (from Genesis 10) mentions the division of nations from both descent of progeny (Families) and language (Tongue), epitomizing the biblical approach of a combined source for national identity.
In the Bible, however, the initial origin scheme for nations is not the end of the story. For later on, when actual nations come into view, they display two additional and closely connected defining features: they each have their particular religion and laws. This is evident, for example, when the Bible denounces the moral iniquities of the Egyptians or the Canaanites as deriving directly from the gods they follow, or when the Israelites are repeatedly directed to accord aliens residing among them the protection of Israelite laws. Although religion and law are always intimately linked in the biblical account, they are not identical. The prophetic books in particular repeatedly address Israelites who precisely worship the true God of Israel (and not false gods or idols) yet nevertheless scathingly censure them for transgressing moral and social laws—such as the book of Micah accusing the Judean leadership of corruption, dishonesty, and oppression of the poor. Thus, in the Bible, descent and language are joined by religion and laws as defining characteristics of a nation.
Indeed, the children of Israel, from the moment they enter the biblical account, are the paradigm for the necessity of all four components in completing the process of a group of people fully becoming a nation. For although Israelites are initially all descended from their patriarchs, and are viewed as distinctly foreign by their Egyptian overlords, these features are insufficient as yet for the Bible to address them as a nation. In Egypt they are still called “children of Israel,” an extended family or clan (for example, in Exodus 12). It is only after their Exodus from Egyptian bondage that this group dwelling in the Sinai desert first becomes a “nation” by covenanting with their own national God and by receiving from him their particular national laws.
Notice that of these biblical components making a nation, three out of four, namely language, religion, and laws, are what we call today cultural ones, while common descent is the fourth. The preponderance of the cultural component is repeatedly evident later in the biblical narrative, when several individuals and groups of foreign descent join the Israelite nation by adopting its God and laws (such as Ruth the Moabite), while others of shared descent (such as the children of Esau) are excluded from the nation based on their rejection of Israelite religious and legal practices. Accordingly, national identities based on the biblical tradition always assign a vastly greater importance to the cultural factors in defining this identity and the belonging to it, rather than to descent.
This biblical view of nations crucially shaped the emergence of Christian nations in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, from as far away as Ethiopia to France. As for England, if anything the Israelite example came to exert an even stronger appeal than elsewhere. The main reason for this seems to have been the unusually strong attachment of Englishmen to their traditional laws. Evidently, the case of the Israelites, who famously had become a nation only after having received their peculiar laws (and later were renowned for their stubborn adherence to them, even in exile), had an added appeal for Englishmen, who very early came to accord to their national common law a pivotal role in defining their national identity. One can find from the earliest times references, both direct and indirect, to the identification of the English with their biblically derived, peculiar cultural characteristics, and especially their laws. The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought into England a new ruling class that spoke a foreign language and was evidently of foreign descent. Nevertheless, as early as 1100, Henry I already publicly undertook to “restore the law of King Edward” the Confessor, Anglo-Saxon predecessor of William the Conqueror, whose laws the English held so dear. By 1215 it was the English barons and clergy, many of them still of Norman descent, who compelled King John to issue a Great Charter (Magna Carta) guaranteeing the maintenance of those same traditional English laws. Two centuries after the Conquest, it had become difficult to distinguish between those of Norman and Anglo-Saxon descent, and the English language was already so much a common denominator to both rulers and ruled that in 1295 King Edward I could summon Parliament with the warning that urgent action was needed to forestall a planned invasion by the king of France, who had a “detestable plan” to “extinguish the English language.” Thus, by around 1475, Sir John Fortescue could praise as a fact universally agreed upon by the English that they were governed by peculiar and beneficial national laws, a clear sign of divine favor upon their upstanding national character, whereas unruly and intemperate nations like the French were deservedly governed by the arbitrary and oppressive whims of a single ruler.
In the sixteenth century a strong element of religious particularism was added to the distinctive mix of English national identity. Although even under Catholicism there had always been a proud tradition of local customs and independence in the English church, the unique path taken by the Reformation in England meant that quite early on its national church came to regard itself as distinct not only from Roman Catholicism but also from other Protestant Churches, be they Lutheran or Calvinist. Even while parting ways with Rome, the English church always retained an unusual degree of adherence to tradition in outward forms of worship and especially in its retaining of an episcopal hierarchy, which, claiming its authority to be derived from an unbroken chain of succession stretching back to the apostolic church, never fully embraced the Protestant sola scriptura principle. Not least among its peculiarities, the Anglican church posited from its outset that its supreme governor was the king (or queen) of England, making it a national church, structurally opposed to ideas, shared by Catholics and Calvinists alike, of separate authorities for church and state. In this respect, too, the English regarded themselves as following the biblical example of the Israelites, as explicitly put by the foremost theologian of what came to be called Anglicanism, Richard Hooker, “In a word, our state is according to the pattern of God’s own ancient elect people, which people was not part of them the Common-wealth; and part of the Church of God; but the self same people whole and entire were both under one Chief Governour, on whose Supream [sic] Authority, they did all depend” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity). Later attempts by Puritans during the seventeenth century to align the English church more closely to the Calvinist model failed, so that the Church of England remains to this day a peculiar national church, and the confederation of Episcopalian churches it generated around the world is still termed the Anglican Communion.
Challenges to National Identity
Starting from about 1600, however, competing accounts of collective identity began to emerge, attempting to replace the traditional Bible-based view of the national identity of England as founded on its peculiar laws and religion. These new theories proposed that common political identity is to be founded not in the nation but on other principles. Some were theories, like Jean Bodin’s, stressing the supremacy of a single sovereign over all subjects; other theories, like Hugo Grotius’s, proposed versions of what came to be called the social contract; others yet, like Thomas Hobbes’s, combined the two. The common theme of these new theories was that the state was offered as the new organizing principle of the community, replacing the traditionalist, Bible-based nation. Many of the new, state-focused theories attempted to renew ancient political models, particularly Roman republicanism. It is thus worthwhile to note that the term republic, drawing from the Greco-Roman tradition rather than the Bible, always retained some alien overtones in the English tradition. This was reflected in the Anglo-American political tradition, so that even while the essence of republicanism came to be viewed favorably, as a government concerned with the common welfare, the term itself remained for a long time vaguely suspect. Edmund Burke is a case in point, for he repeatedly asserted on various occasions that he was no principled enemy to republics, and indeed was sympathetic to some republican principles, while firmly believing that powerful large states, like Britain and France, were unsuited to become simple republics. Thus he posited in his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs “that every thing republican which can be introduced with safety into either of them, must be built upon a monarchy; built upon a real, not a nominal monarchy, as its essential basis; that all such institutions, whether aristocratic or democratic, must originate from their crown, and in all their proceedings must refer to it; that by the energy of that main spring alone those republican parts must be set in action, and from thence must derive their whole legal effect (as amongst us they actually do), or the whole will fall into confusion.”
It is for this reason that in the Anglo-American political tradition there was always a marked preference for using the traditional term commonwealth instead of republic for describing the state. Some examples include the term commonwealth being frequently used from the fifteenth century onward to describe the English political community—as in the influential book by the prominent sixteenth-century diplomat Sir Thomas Smith, The Commonwealth of England and the Manner of Government Thereof—and similarly “Commonwealth” was between 1649 and 1660 the official title of the English regicide republican regime; “Commonwealth” is to this day the official title of the states of Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. For this same reason, the framers of the Constitution used the term republic only once, and then in a manner that pertained not to the whole U.S. but rather to the several states, when declaring that the Union shall “guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
One Crown, One Identity?
In looking at clashes between ideas and values, it is always difficult to find a clear starting point, for so many of them flow from and into one another. But for our purposes, the years around 1603 will do. For in this year, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, her third cousin, James Stuart, already king of Scotland, ascended to the English throne, which at this time also ruled Wales and Ireland. By uniting under one Crown all the nations of the British Isles, this event naturally raised issues of identity and definition. These were soon greatly exacerbated when James indicated he was not content to reign over separate kingdoms but wished to carry out a full union of England and Scotland. In 1604, James I made his vision explicit when he told the English Parliament of his hopes for a complete union, wishing to leave at his death “one worship to God: one kingdom, intirely [sic] governed: one uniformity in laws.” Clearly, King James’s vision was one that, if adopted, would entail far-reaching constitutional and social consequences, touching the core concerns defining English national identity: religion (“one worship to God”), the constitution (“one kingdom intirely governed”) and the common law (“one uniformity in laws”).
Such a proposed union brought about a major political debate in England during 1603–11, as Parliament, books, and pamphlets addressed the question. Even when the idea petered out, it left a legacy among Englishmen of heightened sensitivity to political developments, judicial decisions, and even church policies that might alter not only their traditional system of government but also their very national identity. These public debates on national identity and character displayed a widespread and intense attachment to an English national identity, notwithstanding the claims of modern scholars like Benedict Anderson to the contrary.
Very much aware that England was by far the most powerful and populous of his realms, and genuinely preferring what he regarded as the disciplined tendencies of his English subjects to the rebellious nature of his Scottish ones, James in his proposed union tended very much toward imposing English institutions on Scotland. Yet he found the English to be so zealous toward their national traditions that they suspected any unnecessary tinkering with them, and they were essentially uninterested in imposing them on the Scots.
In the religious sphere, King James (as well as his Stuart successors after him) very much wanted to impose top-down Anglican-style episcopacy and discipline on the Presbyterian Scottish Kirk, for which James had a strong antipathy, since, in his words, “some fiery spirited men in the ministry, got such a guiding of the people at that time of confusion, as finding the gust of government sweet, they begouth to fantasy to themselves a democratic form of government.” This move was naturally regarded with distaste by the considerable minority of Englishmen who were Presbyterians or sectarians and wished for the Church of England to be less hierarchical and more akin to the Scottish one. But James found that even among the majority of Englishmen who did follow the established church, there was no real interest in “Anglicanizing” the Scottish church. The reason was probably that many Englishmen were becoming far more concerned about what seemed like a growing tendency among the English clergy, especially in its higher echelons, of supporting “divine right” absolutism in politics. While in the very year of his accession in England, 1603, King James had formally consented to the “Constitutions and Canons” proposed by the Convocations of the Church of England, which reflected the consensual and relatively tolerant ways of the earlier church, only three years later he was presented with new and very different Canons for his approval. The 1606 Canons put far more emphasis on top-down authority in church as well as state, including the obviously political statement that if anyone affirmed that “all civil Power, Iurisdiction, and Authority was first derived from the people, and disorder’d multitude; or either is originally still in them, or else is deduced by their consents naturally from them; and is not God’s Ordinance originally descending from him, and depending upon him, he doth greatly Erre.” Although this turn was in no small part a reaction to dissident resistance theories of church and state aired by Catholics as well as Presbyterians, the proposed antidote of sanctifying absolute royal authority had problematic political implications. King James eventually chose not to give his consent to the proposed Canons, most probably because he opposed in principle any public debates about the sources of royal authority. But the proposed Canons did indicate the trends within the church that were to culminate in the 1630s and convince much of the political class that the established church had become a mere tool of royal political domination.
In the legal sphere, James recognized the unbreakable attachment of the English to their national common law. Yet he did not see it as an insurmountable obstacle to union since he was not facing any difficulty of the sort in Scotland. He conceded that whereas in Scotland (as in France) the only fundamental law of the realm consisted of the rules that governed the succession to the throne, and all other laws were liable to change, in England the whole of the common law was in a sense fundamental. James intended for this acknowledgment to make a legal union palatable to the English. But he found that even a proposal so patently flattering to the English did not remove their opposition to the union, and there never was anything approaching a majority in Parliament for approving of it. A chief source of this opposition was the widespread belief that the common law was peculiarly fitted for the English nation, and thus by implication ill-fitting other nations.
Moreover, some of the English suspicions toward union had been fueled unwittingly by King James himself, in a political treatise that he had composed in 1599. The book, originally written for the education of his sons and printed in Scotland in a very small number of copies, was republished in London in 1603 and sold in the thousands to Englishmen curious about the outlook of their new king. What they found shocked them deeply, for he argued that kings rule by divine right alone and the laws of the realm are, as the title of the book suggested, a Basilikon Doron (“Royal Gift”), therefore implying that such gifts could be rescinded at will.
James was careful never to express such views publicly as king of England, and indeed he studiously suppressed any discussions of the foundations of royal power. Such discussions could only force him into an ideological clash with the vast majority of the English political establishment. This is the apparent reason for his withholding approval of the proposed Canons of 1606, as well as for his joining in the 1619 parliamentary censure and public burning of the Interpreter, a law dictionary by civil lawyer John Cowell, who asserted that the English monarch was an absolute one and that he therefore consulted Parliament only out of his goodness.
James proposed, in effect, to impose the English religion and laws on all his subjects within the new unitary British state, yet he discovered to his dismay that his English subjects were really not interested. The underlying reason for the overwhelming rejection of union was that among the English the association between the nation and its religion and laws ran deep, and they were viewed to a great degree as coterminous. That is, most Englishmen believed their laws suited only them. Unlike the widespread claims made by others for natural law or even Roman law as the best to serve all peoples, the English overwhelmingly held to the opposite belief, maintaining that laws were peculiar to nations.
This outlook was predominant among educated Englishmen. Such was the case of prominent lawyer Nicholas Fuller, who in The Argument of Master Nicholas Fuller (1605) described England’s laws as “so fitted to this people” that they make a “sweet harmony in the government,” and also of the lawyer, member of Parliament, and poet Sir John Davies, who asserted in the preface to his Irish Reports (1615) that the common law is “so framed and fitted to the nature and disposition of this people, as we may properly say it is connatural to the nation, so as it cannot be ruled by any other law.” The same idea was articulated by Sir Edward Coke in a parliamentary speech of March 25, 1628: “We have a national appropriate law to this kingdom. If you tell me of other laws, you are gone. I will only speak of the laws of England.” Even official declarations by King James himself employed this notion, such as when, in August 1608, he presented a Letter of Patent (apparently drafted by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Julius Caesar Adelmare) to the Inner and Middle Temples formally granting to them, after long possession, the Temple Church and adjacent lands. The king’s letter included as justification for this grant a statement to the effect that a great part of the welfare and prosperity of his “Realm of England” for so many ages was owed “to the ancient and proper Laws of the Realm, tried through a long series of ages, and particularly adapted to that populous and warlike nation, and approved by constant experience.”
A Debate About National Identity
James’s proposed union opened a debate that raged for years, both explicitly and implicitly, in many areas of the public sphere. As was to be expected, the most eloquent voices in support for the union were usually those who were least invested in preserving English common law and argued that harmonizing English and Scottish law would not be difficult. Such was the case of distinguished historian and civil (that is Roman) lawyer Sir John Hayward (1560–1627), who in support of the union asserted that in making English and Scottish law into one “the change will not be great.” In similar fashion, the aforementioned civil lawyer John Cowell composed Institutiones Juris Anglicani (1605), a formatting of English law in the style and under the categories of Roman law, and implying its correlation with Scottish law. The same argument was made by clergymen, for the most part Scotsmen, who supported the proposed union, such as John Gordon, author of Enotikon, Or a Sermon of the Union of Great Britain (1604) and Robert Pont, author of De Unione Britanniæ (1604), which asserted the essential compatibility of Scotland’s Roman-law-inspired legal system with the English common law, the two being in his view “almost the same in substance” and thus easily reconciled if any differences arise. Some English prelates could also be found among supporters of union, such as John Thornborough, bishop of Bristol, who published also in 1604 A Discourse Plainly Proving the Evident Utility and Urgent Necessity of the Desired Happy Union of England and Scotland—for which he was formally reprimanded by Parliament. Such ideas dovetailed with earlier proposals that had been made to reconcile English and Roman law. William Fulbecke, in A Parallele or Conference of the Civill Law, the Canon Law, and the Common Law of this Realme of England (1601–2), argued that Roman civil and canon law and English law should not be “like the two faces of Janus” but rather joined like the three graces. Similarly, Sir Francis Bacon, who although a common lawyer had already argued for English law to be brought into line with legal models of the Roman style of law as early as his unpublished Maxims of the Common Law of 1596, attempted to advance a far-reaching reform for writing English law in a shorter and more certain manner patterned after the structure of Roman law, with the monarch heading the enterprise (which would then make the Crown to a great extent the laws’ author). Not surprisingly, Bacon became a leading supporter of the union with Scotland.
Regardless of the intentions of those supporting legal reform as a conduit to union, who tended to treat the common law respectfully and even tried to argue that it agreed on the essential points with Roman law, their very assessment of English law, not on its own terms but rather by looking for principles contained in independently discoverable rational natural laws, was nothing short of blasphemy for traditionalist common lawyers. Indeed, for the great majority of Englishmen, who firmly believed their own national law was nothing like the Roman or the Scottish codes, such claims were alarm bells of an approaching conflagration. Despite all of King James’s protestations to the contrary, the English believed that introducing such changes would shatter the integrity of common law.
Most of the English legal and political establishment essentially concurred with the views of the noted antiquarian and member of Parliament Sir Henry Spelman, who firmly rejected claims of legal or indeed cultural affinity between England and Scotland. He maintained that the Scottish legal system was fundamentally flawed as well as alien to the common law, “liker to France than England,” while Scottish manners were barbarous, for the most part concurring with the base “natural Irish.” In the same vein, the Puritan lawyer Nicholas Fuller presented in 1604 his opposition to the proposed union on grounds of a basic incompatibility between two very different nations, declaring in Parliament: “God hath made People apt for every Country; some for a cold climate, some for a hot climate, and the several countries he hath fitted for their several Natures and Qualities. All grounds be not fit for one kind of grain, some for oats, some for wheat.” To mix the wheat-eating English with the oat-eating Scots would go against both peoples’ “Natures and Qualities”—while the subtext was that the eating of wheat by the English indicated they were civilized and refined, compared to the wild ways of oat-eating Scots.
A more refined and thoughtful account of national identity was articulated by lawyer and MP Thomas Hetley (a.k.a. Hedley), a prominent opponent of union, who already in 1604 had declared that “the bare alteration of a name taketh not away [the laws], but an union doth . . . alter all laws, customs [and] privileges by uniting.” Six years later, during another round of the union debates, Hetley made his most famous contribution to defining the basis for Parliament’s continuing opposition to the union. He claimed that the true source of the wealth and courage that differentiate the English from other nations was “not the nature of the people or climate, though I know they are not utterly without their operation and influence,” but rather “the laws, liberties, and government of this realm.” The peculiar disposition and qualities of the English were not due to some inborn or even geographic factor but instead to their common law and constitution, which over time made them what they were. At the same time, Hetley added, the English common law was not some immutable legal system; rather, it also had adapted to the people in a way that made the two pretty much into one thing: “it is the work of time, which has so adapted and accommodated this law to the kingdom as a garment fitted to the body or a glove to the hand or rather as the skin to the hand, which groweth with it.”
The best measure of the strength of opposition to the union is the eventual realization by its supporters that English suspicions toward it were as deeply set as they were solid, and thus not to be easily surmounted. As prospects for a swift agreement on union faded, there came proposals for adopting largely symbolic measures that would gradually ease the English into union. One proposal was raised by the anonymous composer of the Treatise about the Union of England and Scotland (1604), who believed that “the imposition of one name to both nations” would carry much impression on the population and “knit together the two people.” Another proposal was to create a Union Flag, combining the English cross of St. George and the Scots’ cross of St. Andrew.
James adopted the first of these suggestions and proposed to the English Parliament that he would be satisfied for the time being with a merely symbolic alteration to the royal style, so that his title as king of England and Scotland would change to king of Great Britain, while leaving separate the institutional administration for the kingdoms, including their religion and laws. Yet even this moderate proposal was rejected by Parliament, for it entailed the disappearance of the very name of England in the title of its kings, which was too much for the English to entertain.
Thwarted in his intentions for a swift union, James resorted, on the advice of Bacon, to issuing a proclamation in October 1604 unilaterally changing his style to king of Great Britain in all aspects of his rule that pertained solely to the royal prerogative (that is, executive orders independent of the authority of Parliament): in such areas as treaties, coinage, and so on. He discovered, however, that such actions, even if purely symbolic, did nothing to allay the fears of Parliament, and might very well have exacerbated them. By 1611, King James had finally given up any hope of carrying through the union he hoped for.
Later, of course, a political union of England and Scotland, initially named the United Kingdom of Great Britain, with a union flag and even a united Parliament, was achieved, albeit only in 1707. But even this union, coming after a full century in which the two kingdoms were ruled together, was nothing like the complete fusion between nations that King James and his supporters had envisaged. Instead, to this day, regardless of more than three centuries of formal union, the churches, laws, and national identities of England and Scotland remain quite distinct. If anything, the two nations seem to have grown apart in the past few decades, with devolution resurrecting a subsidiary Scottish Parliament and government and with growing support in Scotland for independence from the United Kingdom.
Challenging the Nation
Even while King James lost his bid for union, the seventeenth century was nevertheless a time in which the traditional, Bible-based national identity started to be seriously contested by new notions of politics arising across Europe. These newfangled ideas never succeeded in completely overcoming traditional English nationalism, but they did (and do) challenge it in important ways. Among these new notions were versions of “divine right” monarchist theory, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries proposed that God’s laws indicated that the monarch should be absolute and always obeyed (the most famous example of this argument was Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha). Much later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various pseudo-scientific notions arose that sought to base collective identities on some kind of ill-defined biological identity, such as race. But there was another notion of collective identity that came to exert a far more potent influence than either of these, and which even eclipsed at times the tradition of biblical-based national identity. This new notion argued for replacing the nation with the state.
In the biblical account of the origin of national identity, there is no role for the state as such. Descent, language, religion, and even laws all exist before the state, and indeed they seem to be a prerequisite for the creation of a national state. This goes against what has become in the past few generations a generally accepted truism that states are the origin of laws and the agency by which national language and other cultural characteristics are created. According to this recent account, nations actually arose only after the rise of the modern state, around the time of the French Revolution, and are essentially a product of the state. In truth, however, this view is simply a construct of consent theories, which emerged in the early seventeenth century and have since come to be unquestionably imbibed by most university graduates (for an alternative view, see Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism). Against the individual-consent theories concentrating on the state, the account of the nation in biblical tradition, and in the English tradition stemming from it, regards national identities, including national laws, as preceding the state and remaining to some degree independent of it. In this idea of the nation, the state comes after the nation and is subservient to it.
The seventeenth century saw the rise of various ideas that focused collective identity on the state at the expense of the nation and traditional national laws; these ranged from the Bodinian idea of absolute sovereignty to the Machiavellian idea of “Reason of State.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Sir Francis Bacon, a disciple of both those thinkers and a patron to Hobbes, explicitly admitted that, in his new way of looking at politics, “we are much beholden to Machiavel.” But it was another view of state-based identity that soon came to dominate all others, a “creedal” one basing the state on a social contract of consenting individuals who create society and then the state, versions of which were developed by Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke.
In many countries around the world, state-based notions of politics have swept all before them, and by the twentieth century they had relegated traditional national identity to the sidelines, as a submerged, obsolete, and even sinister idea. Although national identity reemerges in times of crisis, like wars, when the sentiment and loyalty it inspires are found to be necessary, in the normal course of things the state has become the preferred context for thinking about collective identity. But not everywhere. In some countries, prominent among them the English-speaking nations, this process of replacing nation with state has never been successfully completed, and the old national identity survives to varying degrees. The reasons for this are too complex to discuss fully here, but it appears that, once again, it is the more fervent attachment of some nations to their traditional religion and laws that assists them in successfully resisting the onslaught and prevents them from fully imbibing the statist creed.
In England we can identify an additional and decisive element leading to the rejection of the statist creed, an early and traumatic historical experience. The civil war and a regicide regime in the seventeenth century allowed England to sample amply the statist creed and discover its bitter taste. The memory of this period and its poisoned fruits served the English for centuries as a kind of inoculation against statist delusions.
In 1642 a simmering conflict between king and Parliament over political supremacy erupted into full-fledged civil war. By the time the conflict was decided in 1649, it had decapitated in succession the head of the government, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford (in 1641); the clerical head of the Church of England, William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury (in 1645); and finally the monarch, King Charles I (in 1649). The bloody toppling of the monarchy did not bring anything like stability to England. Instead, the elected Parliament was dissolved by force and replaced by a rump group of radicals within it, whose rule was propped up only by the army. In the next decade, with the traditional constitution shattered, a republican regicide regime attempted to find some kind of new mooring for the state, going through a succession of different constitutions but finding no respite. As Parliament had been forcibly evicted by the soldiers of Colonel Pride and replaced by the Rump, so the Rump was terminated in 1653 by the soldiers of Major General Harrison under orders from Oliver Cromwell, who declared to the assembled: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. . . . Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” The Rump was replaced by the “Barebones Parliament,” an assembly of “saints” appointed by the army. But even this wasn’t enough to secure the regime, and after only a few months that assembly, too, was disbanded. In its stead, a Protectorate under Cromwell was established in 1654, but the assembly elected under it was again found to be too independent and was dissolved in early 1655, when a more direct form of military rule was established, with England divided into ten regions, each governed by a major-general. In 1657 a newly elected assembly abolished the rule of the major-generals and offered Cromwell the crown. He refused the title but was reinstalled as Lord Protector with expanded powers, a king in all but name. This whirlwind naturally occasioned a flurry of proposals for a new political order, among them some lasting masterpieces of political fiction, such as Harrington’s Oceana and Hobbes’s Leviathan. The political chaos was reflected by a similar condition in church government, with the old episcopal system having been abolished but no stable alternative put in its place. Ultimately, the regicide regimes were all illegitimate, insolvent, unpopular, unstable, and propped up only by the lances of the army, so that after Cromwell died in 1659 the whole house of cards swiftly collapsed. It was obvious that the vast majority of Englishmen wanted a restoration of their traditional constitution, their traditional church, and their traditional laws, which was completed with the return of the monarchy in 1660.
The English learned their lesson from these events and have since remained wary of revolutions. After another Stuart king had attempted to significantly alter the English constitution in church and state, the vast majority of the political nation, fearing most of all a return to civil wars, acquiesced in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689, which was glorious exactly for not being a revolution at all but rather a mostly bloodless restoration of the traditional course of things. A century later, in 1790, Edmund Burke could convincingly warn the English about the revolutionary events in France by positing that based on their own experience of civil war, the upheavals beyond the Channel would lead to mounting political chaos, frequent regime changes, political executions, and eventually the rise of a military strongman. He was proved right, and in this he contributed crucially to Britain’s persuasion that adherence to the trodden traditional political path is preferable to embarking on the revolutionary road paved with good intentions. Ever since, the British in general, and especially the English, have remained true to their ingrained suspicion of radical winds that would sweep away their national laws and traditions—a suspicion leading to their recent exit from the European Union.
The English Beyond the Sea
This adherence of the English to their national traditions was carried with them as they settled beyond the seas. As early as 1621, the Virginia Company supplied its growing English settlements in America with an instrument for colonial self-government in internal matters. The treasurer (in our terms CEO) of the company, Edwin Sandys, a disciple of Richard Hooker, enlisted the assistance of shareholder and noted jurist John Selden and issued on July 24, 1621, “An Ordinance and Constitution of the Treasurer Council, and Company in England, for a Council of State and General Assembly” of Virginia. Created to support the governor of the colony, the council was an appointed one and expected to assist in the practicalities of governing, while the assembly was elected by the colonists and given the authority to decide on more general rules by majority vote. In “all other things,” the assembly and council were instructed “to imitate and follow the policy of the form of government, laws, customs, and manner of trial, and other administration of justice, used in the realm of England, as near as may be even as ourselves, by his majesty’s letters patent, are required.” Accordingly, through various changes of governance, for the next 150 years the English in America gradually developed their traditions while adapting them to the circumstances of the new continent, only slowly diverging from English law.
The most significant divergence was of course the gradual introduction of slavery. According to English tradition since at least the fourteenth century, there could be in principle no slavery where common law ruled. Thus English subjects and indeed any Christians could not be legally enslaved under common law (a thornier question was foreigners, especially non-Christians, who had come to English-ruled soil as slaves, but in such cases, too, English courts tended to regard slavery as antithetical to the common law). In Virginia as in the other colonies, there was initially no legal slavery. Instead, there was indentured servitude of both Europeans and Africans, who were bound by a contract (indenture), to work for the owner of the contract for a determined period of time (typically four to seven years). Although in practice indenture was often forced and the indentured received no pay, they were still in principle protected by law, and upon completion of the determined period they were to be freed, receiving a one-time sum or a plot of land of their own. For all its ills and iniquities, both formal and informal (it was not unusual for the indentured to be mistreated and held for longer than the contract), indentured servitude was not slavery and was certainly not racially based. Most indentured servants in the colonies were Europeans rather than Africans, and indeed it has been calculated that up to two-thirds of European immigrants to the American colonies up to independence were initially indentured (to pay for the trip), so that at independence most Americans had been themselves indentured servants or were descended from one. Although indentured servants were sometimes made by contrivances into virtual slaves, and some slaves from abroad were brought in, these were technically illegal, and as late as the 1650s several “freedom suits” in colonial courts upheld the English common law principle that English subjects could not be held in perpetual servitude, and in a famous case a black woman named Elizabeth Key Grinstead won her freedom in Virginia. Such successful suits were decisive in pushing the American colonies, chiefly in the 1660s, to introduce new legislation, which contrary to English common law allowed the legal existence of slavery. Such was the case with the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina of 1669, composed by John Locke with the Earl of Shaftsbury for the recently created colony.
Thus, when a century later the constitutional crisis began to brew between Britain and her American colonists, Edmund Burke attempted to convince the British Parliament that it should recognize the inevitable divergence of the Anglo-Americans from English traditions. He argued that the only way to keep the connection with the Americans was to permit the colonists a very wide degree of self-rule, which would allow them to follow their own path, combining the English national traditions with characteristics they had acquired in the new continent. In one of his first addresses in parliament, the “Speech on Declaratory Resolutions,” delivered in 1766 and dealing with the right of the British government to tax the American colonists, Burke presented some of the principal ideas about the English in America. He argued that America’s distance from Britain (taking months for information to travel back and forth) meant that practically the colonies could never fully “coalesce” and become an integral part of Britain’s working constitution. His conclusion was clear: “We have nothing therefore for it, but to let them carry across the ocean into the woods and desarts [sic] of America the images of the British constitution; the Penates [images of Roman family gods] of an Englishman, to be his Comfort in his Exile, and to be the pledges of his fidelity and to give him an interest in his Dependency on this Country.” Burke believed there was no real hope of keeping the Americans under the British government, but he thought that by carrying the “images of the British constitution” into the continent, the Americans might keep a bond between the new country and the old. The British government did not heed him, and a decade later the Anglo-Americans rebelled against what they regarded as attempts to make off with their traditional English liberties.
On the eve of the revolution, Burke in 1775 made one more attempt, with another famed speech, on “Conciliation with the Colonies,” to dissuade the British government from attempting to impose its rule on the Anglo-Americans by force. Burke described as central to the national character of the Americans the fact that the “fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.” He attributed this character of the Anglo-Americans to six factors:
First, from their English descent they were “not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles.”
Second, their form of self-government under English rule was by “provincial legislative assemblies,” in all of which “the popular representative is the most weighty” who inspires the people “with lofty sentiments, and with a strong aversion from whatever tends to deprive them of their chief importance.”
Third, their Protestant religion: “All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.”
Fourth, in the southern colonies there was the impact of slavery, for Burke argued that in any part of the world where slavery is widespread, “those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom.” He certainly did not support this sentiment, “but I cannot alter the nature of man . . . and such will be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.”
Fifth was the widespread education in the common law among Americans, so that “in no country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study.” Indeed, he noted, “I hear that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone’s Commentaries in America as in England.” He asserted that “this study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. . . . They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”
Sixth was the geographical distance, for “three thousand miles of ocean lie between you and them. No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government.”
Having thus given a description of an Anglo-American national character, in which once again religion, law, and habits of government are central, and traditional English traits are mixed with new ones, Burke warned Britain not to attempt to overcome the American spirit of liberty: “unhappily meeting with an exercise of power in England, which, however lawful, is not reconcilable to any ideas of liberty, much less with theirs, has kindled this flame that is ready to consume us.”
After winning their independence, however, the Anglo-Americans soon rediscovered what their English ancestors had already found—that the “fierce spirit of liberty” was not enough to establish a functioning political system, and that lofty new schemes of government introduced very much the same chaos that England witnessed when it attempted to do the same after the regicide of 1649. Increasingly aware of the danger to the very survival of the American experiment, a majority of the Founders essentially followed what Burke had recommended back in 1766: they returned to the “images” of their national constitution and restored in 1787 the essential structure of the traditional English constitution and common law.
I have described elsewhere (“American Nationalists” in The American Conservative, July 2020) how the first generations of American nationalists, more commonly known as Federalists, were united by their common belief in an American nation with Anglo-American roots and that this common belief led them to support policies such as a strong executive and judiciary (modeled on the British constitution), nationalist economic policies, and a partnership between religion and state (as well as opposition to slavery). With time the shared language, laws, and religion gradually realigned Britain and the U.S. in a convergence of values and interests that persists to this day within what Winston Churchill termed the “special relationship.” It persists because of the descent shared by their two national traditions from the same language, law, religion, and values. Similarly, other English-speaking countries, like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, saw fit, as they advanced toward independence, to hold on to many of their English national traditions while mixing them with new ones peculiar to the circumstances of each. These countries thus remain, even to this day, formally connected to the mother country in various constitutional, legal, and cultural respects, from their retaining of the monarchy to the placing of the British flag within their own. A clear reflection of this affinity is that for more than a century, in every crisis or war they faced, these English-speaking countries, branches and grafts from the old English oak, have stood together, closer to each other than to any other country.
Until quite recently, such views of nationalism were so commonly held in America as not even to be worth repeating. But the past year witnessed the culmination of continuing attempts to discard the traditional national identity of Americans in favor of something else. These attempts extend from relatively innocuous if long-winded claims that American national identity is a “creedal” Lockean set of ideals, free from commitment to tradition; to the dystopic “1619” literary project by the New York Times, attempting to paint all American history, and thus its national identity, as a litany of racism, slavery, and oppression deserving to be extinguished. The outcome of such approaches, aimed at uprooting all national traditions and institutions, is the entrenchment of a whole new interconnected set of gender, queer, race, critical, and intersectional theories. For a generation, these theories have been indoctrinating young minds in academia and have resulted in a series of violent eruptions across American cities last summer.
Against this loathing of national identity and tradition stands the opposite view, according to which the traditions of the nation, and especially its laws, are the nation, in the sense that without them the people lose all those things that bind them together and become simply a mixed multitude. This is the biblical approach, exemplified by the Jewish tradition of regarding the Ten Commandments, carved on stone tablets, as a symbol of national liberty, on top of being a set of fundamental religious-legal precepts—the Hebrew letters for carving being the same for liberty (H-R-U-T). This is the traditional national self-understanding of the English even to this day, with their adherence to their established traditions and especially their common law. This is also the national self-understanding that brought the American Founders to adopt the 1787 constitution that restored the Anglo-American traditions under which the colonies had been founded and governed for the preceding 150 years. Moreover, since then American identity has if anything become even more intimately intertwined with its Constitution. Consider a country like France, going through so many changes of regime and constitution in the past two centuries but remaining essentially still France. Now consider if the U.S. were to abandon its common law traditions such as jury trial and habeas corpus, and its federal Constitution, with the Electoral College and the Senate intentionally skewed in favor of the smaller states—would it not lose much, perhaps most, of what makes it America?
Thus despite many differences, to this day English-speaking countries remain one field of culture and language, so that Shakespeare informs American literature, and that quintessential American Robert Frost published his first books in Britain. The shared national tradition still assigns God a place of honor in the public sphere, with an established religion in England and the U.S. having “in God we trust” on its money and a pledge of allegiance to “one nation under God”—expressions that are frankly inconceivable in countries based upon the atheistic principles of the French Revolution. And it is a tradition that still rests upon a shared legal and constitutional background, to the degree that when in 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court came to determine the legal status of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay (Boumediene v. Bush), it based its decision upon a long discussion going back to acts by British courts in India, Scotland, and Canada in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Sommersett’s Case (eighteenth century), the Petition of Right (seventeenth century), habeas corpus in common law (fourteenth through seventeenth centuries), and even as far back as Magna Carta (thirteenth century), which the decision quoted directly: “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor send upon him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Ofir Haivry is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Edmund Burke Foundation and author of John Selden and the Western Political Tradition.
Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”
Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For
Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.
Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles
Join the ISI community. Membership is free.
Sexual Reform, Not Sexual Revolution
Contra the radical feminists, women and men depend on each other to flourish as individuals and in family and community.
Conservatism Traced to Its Source
For Matthew Continetti, the right is animated by “the endless competition and occasional collaboration between populism...