October 1, 2019

“To the Republic”

By Glenn

Political allegiance cuts to the heart of patriotism.  In the Middle Ages, warriors owed their personal allegiance to their Lord.  For warriors, allegiance was earned on the battle field.  For everyone else, the Lord demanded allegiance at the point of a sword.  Monarchs dressed up this crude reality with claims to Divine Right.  In England, however, a remarkable transition took place.  The English rediscovered the meaning of “Republic” or “res publica.”

The Romans established their Republic around 500 BCE.   They took control from a monarch who treated their community as his personal property.  Over the next 300 years Romans refined their institutions, separating powers among three types of government to prevent tyranny.  According to Polybius, the two consuls acted as a monarch, the Senate acted as an aristocracy, and the Tribal Assembly acted as a Democracy.  These three Aristotelian forms prevented any one from overwhelming the other two.

War and militarism undermined the separation of powers.  As Romans waged perpetual war against its neighbors, generals took over politics.  Dissent, the essential feature of representative government, gave way to obedience and violence.  Generals encouraged their followers to see their neighbors as enemies to be fought in a Civil War rather than humans to be debated in an assembly.   Rome lost its Republic, not to a foreign invasion, but to politicians who treated government like their personal business and consolidated power.

During the Middle Ages, a few Republics survived.  They either transformed themselves into empires like Venice or lived under the shadow of empires like the German city-states.  Not until the English Civil War did a Republic reemerge as a viable option for larger states.  The English Parliament had learned during the Tudor dynasty that monarchs needed a partner.  Reaching back to Magna Carta, the Lords and the Commons extracted concessions from weak kings.

The tensions between King and Parliament exploded during the reign of Charles I.  Charles was a reckless monarch who asserted his personal prerogative rather than the public good.  Ironically, Charles created the most tension when Parliament refused to appropriate new money for his fruitless wars, and he responded by collecting “Ship Money,”  or tariffs, without Parliamentary approval.  He claimed foreigners paid the tariffs, not Englishmen. Parliament disagreed.

At first Parliament was too weak to challenge the King.  Charles ruled without Parliament for 11 years.  This period of personal rule sowed the seeds of distrust.  Parliament gained the upper hand when Charles stumbled into war with his two other Kingdoms, Ireland and Scotland.  Just like a man can own more than one house, monarchical theory allowed a single man to inherit, and govern, more than one kingdom.

In exchange for support against rebels in Ireland and Scotland, the English Parliament demanded concessions from Charles.  He refused, retreated to Nottingham and raised an army to fight Parliament.  This very stable genius managed to start three simultaneous wars in his three houses.  Yes, he lost. The Scots captured Charles on the battle field and turned him over the English. 

Parliament did the unthinkable.  They tried him for treason.  How could a King betray himself?  He couldn’t.  He could betray “res publica,”  the public thing.

That the said Charles Stuart, being admitted King of England, and therein trusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land, and not otherwise; and by his trust, oath, and office, being obliged to use the power committed to him for the good and benefit of the people, and for the preservation of their rights and liberties; yet, nevertheless, out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people, yea, to take away and make void the foundations thereof, and of all redress and remedy of misgovernment, which by the fundamental constitutions of this kingdom were reserved on the people’s behalf in the right and power of frequent and successive Parliaments, or national meetings in Council; he, the said Charles Stuart, for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented.

Thus, “res publica” reentered into history in a dramatic way.   Loyalty was a two way street.  Allegiance was a two way street.  The king earned loyalty by serving the public good.  Calling for war against his enemies was treason.  The public good demanded peace.  The Parliament had a constitutional duty to check Charles’ abuse of power.  They found him guilty and chopped off his head.

Governments are not a private business or affair.  The powers we delegate to our elected officials belong to us and are loaned to them.  Our constitution provides the superior powers to the legislative branch so that no executive could ever forget the lesson of Charles I.  Our Pledge of Allegiance is “To the Republic,” not the Chosen One.

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