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Queen Mothers of Invention

How the English-speaking peoples invented freedom.

By From the January-February 2014 issue

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Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World
By Daniel Hannan

(Broadside, 416 pages, $26.99)

Daniel Hannan’s Inventing Freedom: How the English Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World will be warm catnip for most Anglophiles and conservatives. Hannan argues that the political and economic virtues commonly ascribed to western civilization mostly are rooted in the Anglosphere, starting in old England. How many non-English speaking nations have centuries of continuous rule of law, elected civilian government, and protection of property? Precious few. He draws a straight line from Magna Carta (which he sees as the Anglosphere’s “formative text”), through the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, to the U.S. Constitution. Parliaments, religious liberty, freedom of speech, and cultures that reward “production better than predation” were the result. Americans “intensified” individualism to an even finer art. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “The American is the Englishman left to himself.”

An outspoken Eurosceptic member of the European Parliament and libertarian-inclined Conservative, Hannan traces English liberties back to the tribal Anglo-Saxons, who elected their kings and originated common law, through trade-minded Puritans and religious non-dissenters, who resisted ecclesial and civil autocracy. His theme echoes the Whig Interpretation of History, which he happily admits, though he rebuts its progressive implications. It’s not just the unique history of the British people but their language itself, with the widest vocabulary of any tongue, that helps facilitate freedom.

“Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society,” Hannan writes. “They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words. The fact that those ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin."

While continental Europe and most of the world are prone to centralization and regulation, the Anglosphere uniquely assumes that individuals do best making their own choices. And unlike most other nations, which are ethnicity-based, Britain and its English-speaking cousins define themselves by ideals, or a “creedal polity,” more than blood. Starting with the English Civil War, Hannan notes the creation of “two camps,” divided between “those who fought for monarchy, aristocracy episcopacy, hierarchy, loyalty, and land” and “those who fought for individualism, Protestantism, representative government, and free trade.” These alignments created a “shared political consciousness” and the basis of the Anglosphere’s subsequent two-party system.

The Anglosphere’s common historical experience is all the more exceptional for its eventual global influence and predominance. In a typically pithy observation, Hannan notes that the English are not famous for any particular folk costume because their dress, the modern suit, has become the universal male standard for formal wear. Meanwhile, American clothing, such as jeans, has become the universal standard for casual wear. More significantly, nearly every nation on earth, with varying degrees of sincerity, claims Anglosphere concepts such as democratic rule, parliaments, constitutions, and supreme courts, not to mention contracts and some form of open markets. 

Hannan quotes Alan MacFarlane that most English from at least the 13th century were “rampant individualists, highly mobile…economically rational, market-oriented and acquisitive…very like their descendants.” Unlike most of the rest of the world, the English believed in individual property rights, not family or tribal lands. When English settlers in later centuries purchased land from indigenous people, in America and elsewhere, the tribes thought they were only selling access, not permanent ownership, which to them was alien. For a similar reason, unlike the rest of Eurasia, England had little peasantry. Most of its people were not bound to family patrimony but individuals who autonomously left their families upon reaching maturity. 

Intrinsically localist, the Anglosphere distrusts common currencies and federal parliaments, such as the European Union, Hannan avers. It prefers flexible military alliances and free market zones, uniting peoples but not governments. Most of humanity has been confined by caste structures, heredity, and slavery, their destiny largely fixed at birth. The Anglosphere’s special emphasis on individuals’ being equal before the law and able to contract with others has allowed the last several centuries of dramatic uplift in freedom, prosperity, and health. Yet today, according to one index, only about 11 percent of the earth’s people live in full democracies, and these are mostly confined to the Anglosphere and northwestern Europe. 

Hannan admits that the Anglosphere is in part an accident of geography. It began on an island that spread to an archipelago, fueling trade and offering a watery defense against enemies, while also militating against the need for large standing armies, protected from what Thomas Jefferson called the “exterminating havoc” of Europe.

But the Anglosphere’s strongest blessings were political and religious. England developed very early as a cohesive nation with the rule of law in place. The common law, unlike most of European law, arose organically, not by dictate, and became intrinsic to culture. And Protestantism, predated by Bible translator John Wycliffe and the Lollard preachers, created religious pluralism and individualism that resisted centralized authority and jealously resented impositions on conscience. Protestantism also encouraged entrepreneurship and fueled greater economic growth. Individual Bible reading mandated mass literacy, with a preference for secular schools. Though they may not have intended to do so, the Calvinists especially facilitated religious pluralism. “I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on these shores,” Tocqueville remarked.

Anglosphere Catholics and other religionists inherited the Protestant preference for decentralized freedom. The Puritans had in fact invited Jews back to Britain during Cromwell’s Protectorate. “I never met an English Catholic who did not value, as much as any Protestant, the free institutions of his country,” Tocqueville further observed. Hannan cites a thrifty early 20th-century Methodist grocer and small town mayor and Rotarian as the embodiment of the Anglosphere’s very independent Protestant ethos. He was the father and role model of Margaret Thatcher. During the French Revolution’s bicentennial, Mrs. Thatcher pointedly contrasted the Anglosphere’s legacy of sustained freedom with the murderous riots and statism that had flowed out of France. More practical than ideological, the Anglosphere has long eschewed political extremism. Neither communism nor fascism ever gained a wide following, in contrast with continental Europe.

Despite surging statism, spending, debt, and multiculturalist elites hostile or indifferent to the Anglosphere’s unique legacy, Hannan is relatively hopeful about the Anglosphere’s future. “We remain an inventive, quizzical, enterprising people,” he is sure.

We can hope. Hannan identifies much of the Anglosphere’s success in its “Protestant political culture.” Excepting parts of the United States, religious observance has declined, he writes. But Protestant cultural emphasis on democracy, civic freedoms, and pluralism persists, and is widely valued both by members of other religious traditions and secularists. “The ghost has departed, but the machine hums on,” Hannan insists. But how long the machine can hum without the ghost he does not say. 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.