Seventeenth Century Constitutionalism Saved Britain — Can Its Understandings Save Us? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Seventeenth Century Constitutionalism Saved Britain — Can Its Understandings Save Us?
17th century English jurist and scholar John Selden (Wikimedia Commons)

The great 17th century constitutionalist John Selden was not a man of the cloth but he was convinced that religion served as the basis of societal order. Unlike his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, who famously believed that the natural order was simply a fearsome jungle in which the only rule was that of tooth and claw, Selden saw evidence of an objective moral order deriving from the same source that the natural world derived its laws.

An admirer recollected Selden addressing the topic at a convivial dinner:

He that has not religion to govern his morality, is not a dram better than my mastiff-dog; so long as you stroke him, and please him, and do not pinch him, he will play with you as finely as may be, he is a very good moral mastiff; but if you hurt him, he will fly in your face, and tear out your throat.

The law of tooth and claw is real enough, but we do have access to something higher. Contra Hobbes, we are not just mastiff dogs in need of someone to keep us on a short chain. We are participants in systems of law that all stem from the divine source of authority. We give our assent to this public and historical revelation, and continue its life in our days as it was handed living to us by our forebears. As participants in a constitutional order in which all have their place, our liberty is affirmed as something more than just being the superior power with the sharpest claws. Rather, the authority is rooted in the very freedom of our assent to this order that is set before us all by the same source as all nature. Our deepest religious acts are upholding in our lives that divine liberty is the most sacred possibility of human society.

Selden’s constitutionalism was tried severely. His championing the constitutional idea of bounded powers against King James’ and King Charles’ assertions of unlimited royal prerogative landed him in prison more than once. The kings felt their superior power was sufficient to justify every thought they had; they wanted no second-guessing by Parliament or any subject. Selden’s powerful scholarship showed that the religious tradition that the kings claimed granted them absolute rule in fact was subject to the limitations of received law that guaranteed rights for the subjects as well.

Assertive monarchs were not Selden’s only headache. Although he had been a leading figure in Parliament’s assertion of its own authority against the King’s power grabs, he also found himself on the outside when Parliament’s cause was taken up and then taken over by the mighty New Model Army. Burning with religious fervor, this Puritan army proved invincible in the field. Its leader, Oliver Cromwell, saw that King Charles was executed, with only the flimsiest of legal sanction clothing the naked Hobbesian brutality of the power grab.

While Selden managed to avoid antagonizing Cromwell during his new reign as Lord Protector, he was hardly happy with this effective dictatorship, for it was the sign of complete constitutional collapse. While Cromwell believed that God gave him each military victory and authorized his political takeover, Selden believed that such assertions of divine justification failed to establish any legal right. All legitimate power derives from the divine directive for all peoples of the world to govern themselves by due processes of law, as asserted in the rabbinic tradition as one of the Seven Laws given to Noah and through him to all humanity. No one’s rights are abridged by private claims of revelation, neither an Episcopal king nor a Puritan army leader. The nation as a whole has developed its system of laws and customs, as commanded from Above. Only under that constitutional system does anyone have any legitimate power.

America is teeming with extreme neo-Puritans, who share an intolerant religious fervor but without the Biblical grounding of their forbears. The basic common sense of Scripture affirms the responsibilities both of the wealthy to support those weaker than they and of even the poor to respect the laws of property. The Puritans of Cromwell’s time accordingly drew the line when confronted by the Levelers, a group of proto-communists who desired to level all distinctions of property and see that all land and wealth and power were shared with exact equality.

America’s neo-Puritans lack this biblical good sense that brought some balance even to dictators. True, they have not yet lopped off any heads other than those of America’s statuary, but their intolerance and impatience with constitutional order is the same, if not worse. They disrespect the intricate interplay of all the nation in the constitutional system. It strikes them as miserably offensive and backward, and in need of clearing out. Their guiding revelation is sovereign, blasting away any other consideration. Any delay in the utopia that they alone have the keys to is heretical.

This is the great flaw of trying to govern on the basis of private revelation, as Selden understood it. It is inevitably, whenever it appears, at odds with liberty. Fo the neo-Puritan as for the fascist and as for the communist, truth is theirs alone. To respect others’ different views on any item covered by their revelation is heretical and intolerable. Liberty is counterrevolutionary. It belongs to the rulers alone, who will enforce every knew detail of their private, constantly morphing, dogma, which is, as they see it, never open to debate or delay.

Selden died a few years before the Stuart Restoration. The British constitution seemed a dead letter. But only a few short years after his passing, the letter showed itself miraculously resurrected. Cromwell died and the people welcomed back the son of the executed King Charles to sit on a restored throne as a constitutional monarch. Constitutionalism had triumphed, and has ruled in Britain ever since, and with a written Constitution, it has weathered every storm in America.

The Masters of the Woke Private Revelation are mounting their challenge to constitutionalism today. And today, things move faster. It has taken a mere half-year of Biden’s reign to expose the deficiencies of the neo-Puritans to a decisive majority of Americans, when it took more than a decade of Cromwell’s rule. Let us pray the lesson the nation is learning will be last as long as Britain’s continues to do, and that the restoration of America’s vigorous constitutional commitment will be the joyous work of the great and decisive majority of the American people.

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