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Of History

May 4, 2019

I occasionally can’t resist the temptation to write something with a Baconian title. Thus, this posting. Before I get any further into it, I want to share something from another loyal subject of the British Empire*, Rudyard Kipling. It is one of my favorites.

Norman and Saxon

-A.D. 1100-

“My son,” said the Norman Baron, “I am dying, and you will be heir
To all the broad acres in England that William gave me for share
When he conquered the Saxon at Hastings, and a nice little handful it is.
But before you go over to rule it I want you to understand this:–

“The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
When he stands like an ox in the furrow – with his sullen set eyes on your own,
And grumbles, ‘This isn’t fair dealing,’ my son, leave the Saxon alone.

“You can horsewhip your Gascony archers, or torture your Picardy spears;
But don’t try that game on the Saxon; you’ll have the whole brood round your ears.
From the richest old Thane in the county to the poorest chained serf in the field,
They’ll be at you and on you like hornets, and, if you are wise, you will yield.

“But first you must master their language, their dialect, proverbs and songs.
Don’t trust any clerk to interpret when they come with the tale of their wrongs.
Let them know that you know what they’re saying; let them feel that you know what to say.
Yes, even when you want to go hunting, hear ’em out if it takes you all day.

They’ll drink every hour of the daylight and poach every hour of the dark.
It’s the sport not the rabbits they’re after (we’ve plenty of game in the park).
Don’t hang them or cut off their fingers. That’s wasteful as well as unkind,
For a hard-bitten, South-country poacher makes the best man- at-arms you can find.

“Appear with your wife and the children at their weddings and funerals and feasts.
Be polite but not friendly to Bishops; be good to all poor parish priests.
Say ‘we,’ ‘us’ and ‘ours’ when you’re talking, instead of ‘you fellows’ and ‘I.’
Don’t ride over seeds; keep your temper; and never you tell ’em a lie!”

I like the entire thing, but what I find most appealing is the second stanza. Perhaps why will become clear in a moment.

In at least semi-accurate history, the English yeoman is an interesting figure; loyal to country and yet, strongly independent. The picture is one of the yeoman, working his land, perhaps even a freehold, when visited by his Lord’s tax collector. The yeoman dutifully brings out the tax, only to be informed by the tax collector that “the taxes have increased.” Our yeoman considers this for a moment before announcing that “no, they have not. If the Lord wishes to collect more taxes, he can come collect them himself.” For a long time, it was recognized by the nobility that the yeomen could be safely pushed only so far before there was “trouble.” See Kipling, above, and the term “fair dealing.”**

It is against this backdrop, I submit, that we have the view of at least some of the Founders that the US would be a nation of yeomen; strong, independent and intolerant of efforts to erode their liberty. The image of the American yeoman farmer comes into play here, though some of its earliest proponents found it more interesting as an idea than a reality when faced with its implications *cough* Adams *cough*.

The point of all this is that we have lost much of that idea. Far too often, we accept the idea of national sovereignty, not simply in terms of the US in its dealings with other nations, but even in its dealings with the citizens who constitute our republic. We have forgotten the concept of popular sovereignty. When we consider the implications of true popular sovereignty, we can perhaps understand Patrick Henry’s concerns regarding the newly proposed Constitution***, to wit that in the search for a stronger central government, we wound up with one more readily able to destroy liberty (Henry was also concerned with the rights and powers of the states, of course, but that is a separate though related issue).

I’m not sure that there is a way to return, in a real, meaningful and significant way, to the concept of a nation of yeomen and the popular sovereignty it would seem to demand. I will suggest, though, that the alternative is a gradual but steady and ongoing decrease in liberty.****

*Yes. I am well aware that the British Empire did not really begin until the early 17th century, and that therefore Bacon can only be said to have been alive during its earliest years. So, if your plan was to point that out, consider the point already made and acknowledged.

**I am also aware that Kipling greatly post-dates Bacon, the Saxons as depicted in the poem and the time period reflected in that picture of the yeoman. Feel free to move along.

***The fact that I swore loyalty to the Constitution does not mean I believe Henry’s concerns were ill-founded or that I was not serious (the phrase “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion” is important).

****That most of the rest of the world, especially the West, has definitions of liberty the US fails to meet is irrelevant to me, as those tend to define liberty in ways that support collectivism rather than individual liberty.

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  1. OldNFO permalink

    Very well done!

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