The Outstater

December 19, 2020

WITH INAUGURATION ceremonies in the works, many are reaching for historical analogies for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. They range wildly from the reign of Commodus to the Council of Trent to the Civil War to the 1960 defeat of Richard Nixon.

There is one, however, that best reflects the challenges facing our nation. It is the Battle of Hastings, in which William, the Duke of Normandy, narrowly defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson. And yes, he used trickery to win the day.

Granted, the differences are many between a campaign fought with votes, legal and illegal, and one almost a thousand years earlier fought with swords, arrows, cavalry charges and feigned retreats. The outcome, however, was exactly the same — individual sovereignty was lost.

Some talk about “coming together” and “letting democracy work.” Good for them, but half the nation now thinks its votes were stolen. And in a constitutional republic if you doubt that your individual vote will be fairly counted, and if the courts do not argue on your behalf, then you have no way of ensuring that your rulers obey “the law of the land.” 

That is common law, a Norse idea dating back more than 11 centuries. It is what was at stake at Hastings, the rule of law over men, the assertion that even kings and presidents are subject to the laws of property and the individual. It is the single force in what we know as Western Civilization, something the ignorant now dismiss as “white privilege.”

Unique in the world at the time, the common law was something shared by Englishmen of whatever origin and group. It was lost after Hastings under what came to be known as “the Norman yoke.” Here is the historian Paul Johnson on its connection with the founding of the United States:

“The rule of law in England went back even beyond Magna Carta, to Anglo-Saxon times, to the laws of King Alfred and the Witanmagots, the ancient precursor of Massachusetts’ Assembly and Virginia’s House of Burgesses. William the Conqueror had attempted to impose what Lord Chief Justice Coke, the great early 17th-century authority on the law, had called ‘the Norman Yoke.’ But he had been frustrated. So, in time, had Charles I been frustrated, when he tried to reimpose it, by the Long Parliament. Now (in the American colonies), in its arrogance and complacency, the English parliament, forgetting the lessons of the past, was trying to impose the Norman Yoke on free-born Americans, to take away their cherished rule of law and undermine the rights they enjoyed under it with as much justice as any Englishman.”

Old stuff? Maybe, but imagine life without absolute private property or individual and religious liberty. No, wait, you don’t have to imagine. That describes much of the world today, including to a degree Western Europe, so beloved in Washington these days. And it was in its most extreme form what William the Conquer imposed on England beginning in 1066.

The purpose of historical analogies is not to drudge up the past but to prepare for the future. The past is prologue, or some of us believe. In this particular argument, history points to the hope of revolution, defined by the British historian Daniel Hannan as “a full turn of the wheel, a restoration of that which had been placed the wrong way up.”

So yes, in our Foothold Project and other activities we are planning a revolution — one in the manner of the Anglo-Saxons after Hasting, one accomplished without arms or violence or even high-powered politics.

Prayer will have a lot to do with it, certainly, but also just going about our business at ground level, projecting the genius of common law in our clubs, councils, associations and, importantly, in our most local elections. That is how the English freed themselves. It is how we will have to do it as well. Hannan again: 

“The Norman kings might have seen themselves as absolute sovereigns, entitled to dispose as they pleased of every square inch of land in the realm. But they couldn’t extirpate the notion of the law as the property of the nation, the protector of the individual. Nor could they eliminate the idea of important decisions being taken at public meetings. These subterranean trickles, these provincial rivulets, eventually flowed together to form a torrent that smashed the dam of royal absolutism.”

The only improvement we can make on that strategy is time frame. It took the English a hundred years to win their revolution. Surely with the speed of the Internet and a modern highways system we can do it in four. — tcl


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