10th Grade: Richelieu and the New World Order

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the 30 Years War and previewed the coming change towards the ‘Scientific Revolution.’

The 30 Years War was a devastating conflict in terms of loss of life.  But it was also devastating in a psychological, moral sense.  For decades Catholics and Protestants killed each other, burned towns, committed atrocities, all in the name of the Christian faith.  The map below shows the casualties in various parts of Germany alone.

Part of the reason the war became so destructive is that various nations, like Sweden, Spain, and France found reasons to get involved at various times during the war and extended it artificially. But part of the reason that religious conflicts  persist in general is that:

  • It is difficult to compromise or negotiate with religious belief
  • Victory in a religious war is hard to define

One can only come to terms in a religious war when either

  • Both sides are completely exhausted, or
  • You change what the war is about, making it something that you can compromise on, such as possession of territory.

This is in fact what happened, and this second reason is a clue to the coming transformation in the worldview of Europe.  Since the start of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants had both lead with religion in the political and philosophical realm.  Now, their focus shifted towards the more tangible and measurable.  If you have the time, this clip from Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series makes the transition in art and thought clear:

Essentially, Clark argues that the shift was from theory, which would include intellectual ideas as well as the unproven realm of ‘faith,’ to experience, observation, and the natural world.  It is the Dutch school of the 17th century that  exemplified this change.  One can see it in the work of Van Hals:

Here are practical, reasonable men.  They are a long way from the emotionally and spiritually moved men from, say, Carravaggio’s work just a few decades earlier.  This passion for representing reality apart from meaning reached it’s peak with this work of Paulus Potter:

I agree with Clark when he argues that here the passion for representing measurable reality has gone about as far as it can go.  The technical skill is remarkable, but for me at least, there is no ‘heart’ or ‘meaning’ in the work. As we shall see, the problem with this painting was the same lurking problem faced by the Scientific Revolution.

Probably the artist who married the best of the observational school with meaning had to be Rembrandt.   He depicted people “realistically,” but he managed to depict them as morally imaginative as well.  We think of him as a painter, but he was best known in his day for his etchings.  Here is one example:

If the Dutch exemplified the change in art, the French did so in the political realm.  Cardinal Richelieu is known for many things, but this quote exemplifies his philosophy:

‘People are immortal, and thus subject to the law of God.  States are mortal [that is, ‘unnatural,’ artificial, man-made creations], and are thus subject to the law of what works.’

Richelieu believed that nations did not interact with each other in the way that individuals did.  After all, people cannot kill each other, but nations can have armies that kill each other without necessarily sinning.  People can’t lie, but nations can send spies to other places where they ‘lawfully’ engage in deception.  It might be similar to people bluffing in poker.  They are trying to deceive, but are they sinning?  Most would say not, because when we play poker we enter into a world that has its own set of rules set apart from normal life.  Frenchmen will be judged by God.  But the geographical entity we call ‘France’ will pass away, it will not be judged.  Thus, ‘France’ could play by different rules than Frenchmen.

This famous painting of him shows his famously lean, intelligent frame:

With this perspective, Richelieu astounded and infuriated his contemporaries.  As France’s chief minister, he sought to serve the entity ‘France.’  This meant that:

  • France would intervene on behalf of Protestants in the 30 Years War, despite the fact that they were a Catholic nation.  Except that Richelieu didn’t see ‘Catholic France,’ but ‘France, where most people are Catholic.’  Richelieu fought not to protect Catholics, but the entity France, which he did not want surrounded by Catholic Spain.  Spain fought in the 30 Years War in part to recover the Netherlands, territory they had lost in the early 1600’s.  This new perspective shocked many, but it would be the way of the future
  • He believed that strengthening France would have to mean strengthening the king.  This in turn meant weakening the nobles.  We will see this European turn  away from the feudal era, and toward more centralized authority.  It would be another Frenchmen, Louis XIV, that would push these ideas even further later in the 17th century.


Dave Mathwin


Myths and Realities

Carl Bridenbaugh’s Myths and Realities has a bold title.  One supposes that he will seek to reshape everything about the colonial south.  He doesn’t.  If we view the colonial south as a society of aristocratic-minded men with large social networks, with a mass of underclass and slaves lurking just beneath the surface–well, Bridenbaugh sees the same thing.

But the book shines an unusual and unexpected light on certain aspects of society that surprised me.  What he lacks in flash and dash Bridenbaugh makes up for in clear, concise prose.  Though he grew up in Philadelphia (and taught at Harvard), he writes with the nonchalance of our picture of a southern gentlemen.  It works.

Before I write more I should say that Bridenbaugh deals very little with slavery in this volume.  At certain times he acknowledges its obvious impact and the problems it caused.  Among a few other things, he briefly seeks to dismantle the myth of the contented rural slave.* Here he focuses, however, on those that shaped the overall culture, which means focusing on whites.  Those interested in a much more in-depth look at slavery, at least in Chesapeake society, may wish to go here.  Though Bridenbaugh focuses on a variety of issues, his thoughts on education and cultural formation interested me the most.

Myths are not lies per se, and ancient myths reveal many truths.  In part, myths serve as a kind of synthesis of accumulated data.  Myths might not reveal the whole complete truth but can illumine the important core truths.

I am not anti-myth, any more than I am anti-folklore.  Indeed, these are not things one can really be “against”–they just are.

But . . . while myths can reveal truths, at times they can also obscure them, at least partially.

In Classical-Christian education circles, the narrative (or “myth,” if you prefer) at times runs something like this:

  • America’s founding fathers were an assemblage of great men who gave us a remarkable political system that is the envy of many around the world.
  • The men would not have had the impact they did or been who they were without their educations, which in general were “classical” educations, involving the extensive reading of the classics.
  • Pre-Revolutionary America was largely a Christian society, and Christianity obviously shaped this education along with the classics.
  • Therefore . . . we should all receive this kind of education to help improve our selves and our country.

There are many truths in the above statements, but is it “True”?

Yes, many of our founders were remarkable and interesting men.  Many of them had classical educations.  But they represented a very small sliver of the population and we should wonder whether or not their experience can be transferred to the broader public. Bridenbaugh shows that

  • Formative elite culture and education had little to do with literacy and
  • Little to do with religion, or at least the church

Those that eventually revolted against the British (below the Mason-Dixon line at least) do not quite fit the assumed narrative some have about our past education.  But if the vast bulk of the populace lacked a classical education, what kind of education did they have?

Most settlers might have been literate, but they likely did very little reading.  A few notables had impressive libraries, like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a few others.  Most other families had a Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, practical farming manuals, and little else.  They had nothing against book-learning per se.  Part of the reason surely was that books cost a great deal.

But there were other reasons.  Frankly, we hear no great laments about the lack of books in colonial America.  Those that did write books wrote for a small coterie that would have little application beyond their communities.  The lack of books meant they found their education elsewhere, and it seems they liked it that way.

All this made me think about the nature of education, but please consider the following thoughts speculative . . .

Residents in both the mid-atlantic and southern colonies loved visiting, events, and conversation.  Bridenbaugh states that they were all, “Eminently endowed with the art of talking.”  Dancing had great importance for youngsters, but not just because dancing allowed one to demonstrate aristocratic status. Such an interpretation gives far too much credit to Marx. They genuinely believed that learning the social graces and physical movements improved character.  We might suppose that this characater formation had strictly moral applications.  But again, this society had a political consciousness high enough to revolt from the British.  So either we assume that

  • The education of even the upper classes had no real historical content.  Then, this means that the American Revolution was not really a popular revolt, but one led primarily by the top crust of societal elites, something akin to Rome’s republican rebellion against their kings, or
  • Such an education (in visiting, talking, dancing, etc.) really did give one a distinct set of values that had public and political content.

We should not dismiss the first option out of hand (though the American Revolution, like most any revolution, was too messy to categorize absolutely in any direction).  George Washington, for example, had  a great fondness for Addison’s play about Cato the Younger, one of the pre-eminent plays of the Enlightenment.  Our Constitution very obviosuly borrows from the structures and ethos of the Roman Republic.  The Roman aristocracy led the rebellion and formed a government that favored their class.  And, we might note that the colonial rebellion started amongst the more egalitarian (and probably more literate) New England colonies.

But I do think the second option more likely.  This means we might have to change our view of what consititutes a good education, and helps us get beyond our current model, so heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution.  Bridenbaugh writes that this upbringing did produce “a responsible aristocracy, though not a cultured one.”  And of course, one can get “historical content” in many ways apart from books.

The western emphasis on literacy predates the Reformation.  The Reformation on the whole certainly stressed it, but they inherited this from the Catholic church.  The Church preserved the ancient manuscripts.  Up until quite recently, one had to go to the Church to receive an education.

This might lead us to further speculation . . . if the education in the mid-atlantic and southern regions lacked a strong literate foundation, what might have been the state of the church?  Indeed, Bridenbaugh cites a variety of examples showing the rather deplorable state of the dominant Anglican church in the south.  Among other things, churches could not lead colonial culture because they failed to transcend it.  The majority of churches seemed to provide little in the way of spiritual guidance, training, or education.

This in turn leads us to question the role of the Church in the American Revolution.  To what extent did it have either a firm Christian foundation, or merely a polite Christian veneer that covered an Enlightenment foundation?

As I mentioned earlier, consider this mostly speculative.  But I credit Bridenbaugh with gently encouraging such thoughts.



*Population figures seem to indicate that in rural areas blacks outnumbered whites, who feared rebellion constantly, which does not support the ‘contented’ myth.


10th Grade: Light and Darkness in New England


This week we examined Puritan society in New England during the 17th century. We will not examine much else in regard to North American colonization, but I feel that a focus on the Puritans is appropriate.  Of all the early colonization efforts, theirs had the most influence on the formation of what America would become, for better or worse.

We first looked at what motivated North American colonization in the first place.  Sometimes we tend to think that such colonization must have resulted from great oppression of the lower classes.  In reality many in England who came to North America had some limitations on their lives under Charles I, but all could live out their daily existence without much change, and most of them came from the middle-classes.  After all, a journey across the Atlantic did cost money, and the poor did not have much of it.

The basic characteristics of most who came probably consisted of. . .

  • People not afraid to take risks.  A journey across the ocean in a boat this small (see below) would not be for the faint of heart.
  • People who could afford (see above), but given the risk-reward ratio of sailing across the ocean to hew civilization out of the wilderness from scratch, very few if any of the aristocracy (who “had it all” in Europe) would come.  Hence, though Europeans (all who came from places with aristocracies) founded American civilization, from the start they had an anti-aristocratic bias.
  • While many who came sought their financial well-being, I believe the majority came for deeper reasons.  One could find business opportunity at home if need be.  Many who came were fired by an idea, or at minimum, the sense of adventure.  The risks were too great, and the rewards too uncertain, to be motivated by much less.

All these categories fit the Puritans, and then some.

We have some unfair misconceptions of the Puritans.  They were not, “Puritanical” in their morals.  At Harvard College, which they founded, a mug of beer came with the “meal plan” for lunch. . . and breakfast.  A surprising number of sermons (which were lengthy) dealt with sex and sexuality.  In one town a married woman complained to the Church elders that her husband was not, shall we say, performing his husbandly duties in the bedroom.  The husband got put in the stockade for a day, with a sign around his neck indicating the reason for his being there.

But the Puritans were deadly serious about their mission, and about life in general.  They wanted to leave England not so much because they were sorely oppressed, but because England would let them fully live out how they perceived God’s call on their lives.  The Puritans did not want merely to tweak society, but remake it from top to bottom along more Biblical lines.  England simply offered no room for this, and so, like Constantine (Constantinople) and Ikhneton (Amarna) before them, they sought a fresh canvas to live out their vision.

They did not do this blindly.  After all, God had already called a people to flee a wicked land, and led them to a new place where He gave them special laws to live as a witness to the nations.  The Puritans modeled themselves on Israel, which perhaps explains the vast increase in Old Testament names like Jacob, Joseph, Sarah, etc. in Puritan communities.*  Some went so far as to give their children hortatory names, with actual examples like. . .

  • Fight-the-good-fight-of faith (last name, Snat)
  • Kill-sin (last name, Pemble)
  • Humiliation (last name, Scratcher)

And the very unfortunate young lady who was named

  • Flee-fornication (she married a man named Goodman, last name, Woodman).

They saw their mission not just for themselves, but for all of Christendom.  If they could show the world the blessings that came from living according to God’s law, other places would repent and copy them.  Thus, their success was imperative, not just for themselves, but in their eyes, for all the world.  They were to be a “City on a Hill.”

The light that they hoped would shine could not be dimmed in any way.  While they came to have the freedom to exercise their faith, they could not afford to have “error” contaminate them.  Within their communities they granted no freedom of religion to others, and came into conflict most frequently with Quakers.

This strong sense of mission made a huge impact on Puritan communities.  When compared with other places in Europe or North America, the Puritans had a much lower illegitimate birthrate, and a much higher literacy rate.  Man for man the Puritans gave more sacrificially than their contemporaries.  Nowhere else was their more attention to Scripture, more “clean and sober” living.

As with any zealous people, however, this sense of mission had a darker side.  Since their entire society had a spiritual overtone, all that happened could be explained in spiritual terms.  If you went sailing on the Sabbath (forbidden in Puritan communities) and drowned, well, that was what you get for breaking God’s law.  If you had a toothache, no doubt you had sinned with your teeth.  The Puritans frowned on taverns, not because of alcohol, but because it tended to lead to boisterous singing.  All that energy was better spent elsewhere.  The Puritans wanted no blending, no syncretism with what they considered “pagan.”  The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, which ’12 Days’ has its roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and fined those that did celebrate it.

We can trace this approach back to the Puritans attitude about life in general.  Typical was this quote from Puritan Richard Sibbes,

There are two grand sides in the world, to which all belong: there is God’s side and those that are His, and there is another side that is Satan’s and those that are his. . . two contrary dispositions that pursue one another.

And from another fellow Puritan,

God hath placed us in the world to do him some work.  This is God’s working place; He hath houses of work for us: now, our lot here is to do work, to be in some calling. . . to work for God.

While the Puritans had many strengths, many of their weaknesses made themselves manifest in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.  When approaching this event, we should keep a couple of things in mind.

  • Could witchcraft real?  That is, is it possible that someone could give themselves over to Satan and use that power to work evil in the world?
  • If yes, then how would you know if someone was a witch?
  • If you thought someone was a real witch, what should be done with them?  As we discussed in class, if they had real powers, those powers would not be limited by geography.

In 1692, Salem experienced a burst of hysteria and a flurry of accusations over witchcraft.  They did not dispense with people on mere whims.  They had trials, brought forward witnesses, and had standard of evidence.  Those convicted usually had several witnesses against them, and many claimed to see spectres of the accused out and about in the community.  Astral Projection is a claimed power of witches.

If convicted, you had a chance to repent and be spared death.  However, one problem with the trials was the court’s demand that to demonstrate repentance, the accused name other witches in the community.  Refusal to name others could be taken as a sign that you had not really repented after all.

Within a few months they put the brakes on this runaway train, mainly because 1) They recognized that the trials tore the community apart, and this could not be the work of God, and 2) Significantly, they did not discount “spectral evidence,” or claim that the witnesses lied, but rather, that spectral evidence could be faked by demonic powers, again revealing their worldview.  They believed in evidence, but their standard for evidence, for better or worse, differs a good deal from ours today.

Though the trials stopped, they revealed deep divisions within Salem itself and a sign of the failing of the Puritan dream of a unified, godly community.  As the map below indicates, most of the accusers (‘A’) came from the poorer western sections of town, and most of those accused came from the wealthier eastern section.

The Puritans would fade away in the 18th century, but their stamp upon America remains, especially in regard to “family values,” and education.  In the early colonial era, New England could be described as perhaps the most “conservative” area, and is now one of the most liberal.  Some see this as evidence that, being wound so tight, New Englanders simply “snapped” and went the other way.  Some trace this to the influx of immigrants in the mid 19th century and beyond.  Personally, I tend to see more continuity.  In the 19th century, New England formed the hotbed of the abolitionist movement, and I think the Puritan, crusading spirit lives on, for better or worse, in New England today.



*One can see cultural differences reflected in how those in colonial Virginia, for example, named their children, with a predominance of famous English kings (William, Henry, etc.) and classic English female names like Margaret.  Clearly, Virginia had a more aristocratic and Anglo-centric emphasis to their society.

10th Grade: The Puritans in Power


This week we looked at the aftermath of the trial and execution of Charles I in England, and the ascension of the Puritans, represented by Oliver Cromwell, to power.

It’s hard to get more controversial than Oliver Cromwell.  Some see him as a champion of republican liberty, while some go so far as to label him a proto-fascist.    The facts are that the army dominated Parliament, and so Cromwell dominated Parliament.  He used this power to clear Parliament out of many of his opponents. He then went on campaigns in Ireland and Scotland to put down Stuart inspired resistance known for their brutality, and attempted to resign upon his return.  When this seemed impossible, he continued in power and became ‘Lord Protector’ of England and practically a king in all but name.

If you are a fan of Oliver Cromwell, you look at the events this way:

  • He did not have the luxury of waiting for Parliament to decide on a proper course.  Society will not stop to wait while the Revolution makes its decisions.  Cromwell felt that if Parliament would not act, society might descend into anarchy.
  • His campaigns were brutal, but you could argue that they were traitors and needed to be killed.
  • His attempt to resign shows that he was not interested in power as such, and wanted broader based democratic government.

Those against could just as well argue that

  • His lack of patience with Parliament may have had much more to due with the fact that he viewed Parliament as ineffectual not because they couldn’t function, so much as they would not agree with him.
  • His brutality during the Irish campaign became notorious, as he executed even those who surrendered voluntarily.  This poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries to come.
  • His assuming essential monarchical powers does not help those who argue that Cromwell was not interested in power for the sake of power alone.

The English Civil War gives witness to a key principle of revolutions in general.  For an existing power to get overthrown, one usually needs significant power to oppose it.  For the existing power to in danger of getting overthrown usually (not always) means some kind of misrule and perhaps abuse of power which would affect many people.  However, this abuse of power would not affect everyone in the same way.  So, while the government falls because many opposed it, they did not oppose it for the same reasons.  After the revolution, the victorious discover that they could agree on what was wrong, but not what to do in its place.

Who gets the power in these circumstances?  Usually whoever exerts the most direct control over the army.  The dynamic that played out in England may resemble what happened in Egypt, for example, after they overthrew Mubarak.

Cromwell’s attempt to found a republic also raises uncomfortable questions about the line between morality and practicality in politics.  In his Discourses on Livy Machiavelli argues that any major shift in power, especially to a more democratic form of government, must be the work of one man (I include the full text at the end of the post).  In the end, the changes in government must have a point of unity, a point of control.  One might think that the American Revolution defeats this argument, but I think it unlikely the colonies would have successfully transitioned without George Washington, who “had” to serve as our first president.  One need not agree with Machiavelli’s moral implications (he excuses Romulus’ murder of his brother) to see the practical side of his ideas.

What did the Revolution Accomplish?

At first glance it seems the revolution accomplished little.  After Cromwell’s death Parliament recalled Charles I son Charles from exile and asked him to be King Charles II.  Charles did not rule without Parliament as his father had, but the powers of Parliament had clearly declined.  People rejoiced in Charles’s return from exile in France.  On the surface, since Charles II would have succeeded his father had their been no civil war, it seems like nothing changed.

But the proof would be felt in the long term.  Parliament had set a precedent.  Even in recalling Charles, they showed that it was they who could make kings as well as unmake them.  This would be felt most clearly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament kicked out James II and brought in William and Mary to be king in 1689.  Of course, William and Mary could reign, but on Parliament’s terms, not their own.

Still the aftermath of the Revolution does show the power of embedded habits and tradition.  We should expect that in uncertain times we fall back upon what we know — hence — Charles II.

The “Restoration” under Charles II had many strengths.  After the tumult of the previous 15-20 years people desperately wanted to relax and live their normal lives.  Charles II proved to be a very different man than his father, both in governing style and in temperament, as this portrait reveals.

Pulling off those shoes would require, if nothing else, a sense of humor, something Charles I lacked.  He also had more political sense regarding Parliament, and though he had little strong religious feeling himself (until the very end of his life, apparently) this at least meant that the religious furor that had wracked England for the past few decades could subside.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527):
Founding a Republic,
Excerpt from Discourses I, 9

To found a new republic, or to reform entirely the old institutions of an existing one, must be the work of one man only

It may perhaps appear to some that I have gone too far into the details of Roman history before having made any mention of the founders of that republic, or of her institutions, her religion and her military establishment. Not wishing, therefore, to keep any longer in suspense the desires of those who wish to understand these matters, I say that many will perhaps consider it an evil example that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him; from which it might be concluded that the citizens, according to the example of their prince, might, from ambition and the desire to rule, destroy those who attempt to oppose their authority. This opinion would be correct, if we do not take into consideration the object which Romulus had in view in committing that homicide. But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to be reprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficent purposes. The lawgiver should, however, be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else; for mankind being more prone to evil than to good, his successor might employ for evil purposes the power which he had used only for good ends. Besides, although one man alone should organise a government, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many. Therefore, as the organisation of anything cannot be made by many, because the divergence of their opinions hinders them from agreeing as to what is best, yet, when once they do understand it, they will not readily agree to abandon it. That Romulus deserves to be excused for the death of his brother and that of his associate, and that what he had done was for the general good, and not for the gratification of his own ambition, is proved by the fact that he immediately instituted a senate with which to consult, and according to the opinions of which he might form his resolutions. And on carefully considering the authority which Romulus reserved for himself, we see that all he kept was the command of the army in case of war, and the power of convoking the senate. This was seen when Rome became free, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, when there was no other innovation made upon the existing order of things than the substitution of two consuls, appointed annually, in place of an hereditary king; which proves clearly that all the original institutions of that city were more in conformity with the requirements of a free and civil society than with an absolute and tyrannical government.

The above views might be corroborated by any number of examples, such as those of Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, and other founders of monarchies and republics, who were enabled to establish laws suitable for the general good only by keeping for themselves an exclusive authority; but all these are so well known that I will not further refer to them. I will adduce only one instance, not so celebrated, but which merits the consideration of those who aim to become good legislators: it is this. Agis, king of Sparta, desired to bring back the Spartans to the strict observance of the laws of Lycurgus, being convinced that, by deviating from them, their city had lost much of her ancient virtue, and consequently her power and dominion; but the Spartan ephors had him promptly killed, as one who attempted to make himself a tyrant. His successor, Cleomenes, had conceived the same desire, from studying the records and writings of Agis, which he had found, and which explained his aims and intentions. Cleomenes was convinced that he would be unable to render this service to his country unless he possessed sole authority; for he judged that, owing to the ambitious nature of men, he could not promote the interests of the many against the will of the few; and therefore he availed himself of a convenient opportunity to have all the ephors slain, as well as all such others as might oppose his project, after which he restored the laws of Lycurgus entirely. This course was calculated to resuscitate the greatness of Sparta, and to give Cleomenes a reputation equal to that of Lycurgus, had it not been for the power of the Macedonians and the weakness of the other Greek republics. For being soon after attacked by the Macedonians, and Sparta by herself being inferior in strength, and there being no one whom he could call to his aid, he was defeated; and thus his project, so just and laudable, was never put into execution. Considering, then, all these things, I conclude that, to found a republic, one must be alone; and that Romulus deserves to be absolved from, and not blamed for, the death of Remus and of Tatius.

10th Grade: The Death of a King

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the building tension between Parliament and Charles I.  The civil war that eventually came would, in the long term, change the way the western world thought of political power.

As I mentioned last week, Charles inherited the ideas of absolute monarchy from his father James.  As some commentators, have suggested, however, there was a difference.  For James absolutism was an intellectual question, and thus a conviction he could dispense with, or at least minimize, when the time called for it.  For Charles, absolutism was a emotional issue, and one associated with his religious convictions.  It ran deeper for him, he believed in it with his heart instead of his head.

It would be wrong to say that Charles coveted power for the sake of power.  His conception of England was a realm that needed a shepherd.  He viewed England in personal terms.  His “High Church” Anglicanism serves as an example of this.  Yes, Charles liked ceremony, but also believed ceremony and pageantry appealed to masses, many of whom could not read.  He saw himself as their protector from the more “intellectual” Puritans.  His parliamentarian opponents saw England I think, in terms of institutions, and these institutions for them were the guarantee of the people’s liberties.  Both sides saw the same picture from different perspectives, and different aspects of the picture had different meanings for them.

Among the issues at stake:

Should something be considered legal if it is within the letter but not necessarily the spirit of the law?  Is the letter or the spirit of the law a better guarantee of liberty?

To understand this question, the issue at hand was Charles’s refusal to rule with Parliament, and his collection of the ‘Ship’s Tax.’  Being an introvert and socially awkward, I think Charles hated Parliament.  He did not hate every MP, but he did hate the crowd, the glad-handing, the politicking of it all.  Charles lacked people skills. It was just so much easier, on a number of levels, for him to rule alone without Parliament’s help.  As king, he was not required to call Parliament at all, except when he wanted new taxes.
Charles tried to keep expenses down but every government needs money at some point.  The ‘Ship’s Tax’ was a law still on the books from a few generations prior, but it had fallen into disuse.  It was used as a war-time measure to raise money when under the threat of invasion.   The last time it had been collected was back in the days when Elizabeth used it as a special measure to help prepare defense against the Spanish Armada.  Charles resurrected the tax.  Technically it was not a ‘new’ tax, for it had been collected before.  But Charles was using the tax as a means of general, not special revenue, and he did so to avoid calling for Parliament’s approval for any new taxes.  Charles was within the letter, but not the spirit of the law.  The tax was not “new” in the sense that it had once been collected, albeit with a different purpose in mind.  But Charles revived the tax not under threat of invasion, but as a loophole to avoid Parliament altogether.
By definition, can the king be a traitor?  If so, what would he have to do to merit that approbation?  If one conceives of the king personally embodying England itself then the answer is no.  But if one sees the king as a steward over something outside of himself, then it becomes a possibility.  Charles obviously viewed himself in the former sense, and Parliament the latter.  But at the time, no consensus existed on this question.

Should a bad, or ineffective king, be given complete loyalty?  Does the power of the king depend on how he rules, or on his office?

In the end, Parliament put Charles on trial for treason.  He had, they claimed, made war on his own people and trampled on the Constitution.  Furthermore, he had lied to them and negotiated with the Scots to invade on his behalf, while negotiating in supposed good faith with Parliament.  But the Parliament that tried Charles was not the full Parliament.  The army booted out those whom they suspected that Charles bought off, including the whole House of Lords.  Parliament may have the power to try the king, but was this Parliament?  Charles, at the trial, refused to enter a plea for this reason.  He argued that while “a power” faced him, law did not, which the following clip illustrates. . .

Charles never actually had a trial.  When he refused to enter a plea Parliament found him guilty “in abstentia” (though of course it did not take 2:30 as in the movie clip!).  Though I personally think that Parliament had a good case against Charles, they forced the issue and gave Charles back some dignity and legitimacy when they did not use the full Parliament to put him on trial.

At the end of this week we assigned lawyers to prosecute and defend Charles, as well as witnesses for the defense and prosecution.  I hope the students will have fun with our own mini ‘mock-trial’ and come away with a greater understanding of England during the mid-1600’s.  But as we will discuss next week, the past is not wholly “past.”  Our own ‘War on Terror’ has raised many of the same questions that faced the English.  Should torture ever be used, as Charles did, in time of war?  How far does the power of the president extend in war time?  Bush, for example, defended his extensive wire-tapping as a necessary war-time measure even if it was in a distinctly grey constitutional area, as this article notes.
These are many of the same dilemmas, in an obviously different context, that the English dealt with in 1650.  I hope students will make the connections.
Dave Mathwin
*Observe, for example, how in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” the kings of France and England call each other “Brother France,” and “Brother England.”

“We have a great king, who loves ham.”

I recently came across an interesting article about a man who commands fees of $4000 for slicing a leg of ham.

If one reads the article, the startling headline begins to make a bit of sense.  Many consider Florencio Sanchez the pre-eminent international voice for Iberian ham, a traditional Spanish cuisine/delicacy.  Apparently Iberian ham means to Spain what barbecue might mean for Texan.  The pig must be raised in a certain way, cut in a certain way, and so on.  Clearly as well, Sanchez styles himself as an “artiste.”  For Iberian ham to truly be Iberian ham it must be presented in a certain way, with certain instruments that . . .  only he may ever touch. Among other things, Sanchez believes that no true slicer of ham would ever speak English.

One comment in the video below particularly stuck with me, however:

Sanchez clearly takes the most pride in having cut ham for the King of Spain, which should not surprise us.  But he added that, “We have a great king, who loves ham.”

It seemed to me that he could have almost said, “We have a great king because he loves ham.”

Of course, Sanchez has honed and practices a very traditional skill, and monarchy is a traditional form of government that relies on tradition to succeed.  And if the king appreciates Sanchez’s life’s work, we should not blame Sanchez if he feels flattered and even vindicated.  But with this comment, I think Sanchez has an insight into political leadership, and why many in the west–not just in the U.S.– feel less confidence about our democracies at the moment.

A successful monarch need not necessarily have the right policies.  He/she will generally be loved if their actions in some measure reflect well on their country.  So Richard I, the “Lionhearted,” can be revered in English memory although he actually spent very little time in England.  Saint Louis IX lost on two crusades and emptied the treasury in payments to Moslems for his own ransom, but his noble character and sanctity earned him the love of France.  Louis XIV had an enormous appetite (apparently due to his abnormally huge stomach), eating multiple courses for dinner, making a huge show of it in the process, and Frenchmen took pride in that.  “Look what our king can do!”   So too, “Our king loves ham.”  He acts in ways that embody something of Spain, just as Richard did for England.  Such kings overshadow more “successful” monarchs like Henry II, if we think of success in modern terms.*

Our founders recognized the need for this on some level.  I think they wanted the president to always be George Washington–that is–someone above reproach who used his powers sparingly but with forbearance and wisdom, someone who had no political skin in the game. They utterly failed to anticipate the almost immediate rise of the presidency as a popular/populist office and the impact that would have on our democracy.

Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and others point out the radical nature of the American Revolution and its clean break with tradition and the past.  This bold move helped make the Revolution successful and gave it its influence worldwide.  But, this recent election might make us wish that we had a king, “who loves ham,” or in our case, perhaps cheeseburgers.


*Before we think that, “Hey, I’ll gladly love ham if you make me king of Spain,” kingship has some very tricky elements.  By the end of his reign the people hated Louis XIV.  Louis might say, “Sure, I lost two big wars, but after all, so did St. Louis IX!  And . . . I can still eat more than most mortal men, right?”

But it wouldn’t have helped him.

People cheered Louis XVI at the opening of the Estates General in 1789.  They executed him a few years later. Kingship works when a quasi-mystical, perhaps sacred connection exists between him and his people–when he rightly acts as the “pater-familias.”

Wikipedia tells us that Felipe VI of Spain has the favor of the Spanish people, and that many want him to intervene a bit more to reconcile party differences.  He seems to have popularity and good-will at the moment. But if Wikipedia accurately reports, he will need great caution, because some of his popularity seems rooted in his abandonment of certain long-standing traditions, such as the practice of elected officials taking their oaths of office upon a Bible or crucifix.

A king’s power rests in large measure upon tradition, and he tampers with that as his peril.  Many assume France’s Louis XVI was reactionary and inflexible.  In fact, as Simon Schama points out in his Citizens, Louis attempted many progressive reforms.  Some of the Enlightenment philosophes initially praised him as just the sort of king France needed (Louis probably did not want their praise, but still . . . ).  Events show that this stance almost certainly hurt rather than helped.

10th Grade: Authority and the Stuart Kings

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our story in England.  With the death of Elizabeth, the male Tudor line ended, but the line could continue through Henry’s niece Mary, known as Mary Queen of Scots.  She had been executed for treason by Elizabeth, but now ironically, it was her son James that was called upon to take the reigns of power in England.

James I defense of absolute monarchy raises a dilemma occasioned by  the Reformation.  Protestants often accused Catholics of being ‘authoritarian.’  “Look,” they might say, “you have to obey bishops, popes, councils, and the like. Man has no chance to have an individual, personal relationship to God.”  Thus, according to this argument, Catholicism and democratic government could never go hand in hand.  Catholicism is inherently authoritarian.

Catholics would likely respond that Protestantism has the “authoritarian” problem.  By reducing everything to “Scripture alone” and forgoing reason, tradition, etc. we put ourselves at the mercy of whoever has the authority to give the “right” interpretation of Scripture.  With no buffer between man and the state in an independent church, the state would naturally grab up all the power.

As for Catholicism and democracy, what about the local village elections in the Middle Ages, or the Italian city-state republics of the 15th century?  Democracy has its roots in Catholicism, not Protestantism.

Both sides of this debate are a bit of a caricature, but absolute monarchy arose first within Protestantism, beginning with Henry VIII and extending down to James I.  In class we discussed when absolutism can gain acceptance by the people.  It takes certain historical circumstances, generally, for that sort of thing to fly.  One needs a time of great transition or crisis for people to accept this kind of authority.  In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII had the license to reign autocratically.  In the aftermath of “Bloody” Mary and the Spanish Armada, perhaps his daughter Elizabeth did as well.  By the time of James I, however, this license may have expired.  But James exercised his absolute rule generally to bring moderation.  His portraits reveal an ease with himself and his surroundings,  He is comfortable in power, and makes others comfortable thereby.

James_I_of_England_404446 James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens

His son Charles, however, inherited his father’s ideas about absolute rule, but without the political sense  and personality of his father.  One look at his most famous portrait shows a man of unease and intensity, someone who might “upset the apple cart.”

His actions and those of others would bring about a clash that would shape the question of power and rights in England and perhaps western Europe, for decades to come.

From our vantage point monarchy seems quaint and outdated.  But we must realize that democratic movements are the relative newcomer on the historical stage.  It behooves us then, to consider the arguments for monarchical government.

Most such arguments that I encountered focus on some the technical aspects of kingly rule.  Monarchy is faster, more efficient,  and more unifying than democracies, and so on.   I think these arguments, whatever their merits, miss the major point of monarchies from a Christian perspective.  We should consider whether or not certain forms of government, and not just how they function, can aid or detract from our spiritual lives.

We begin by recognizing that the physical world is inextricably bound up with our spiritual lives.  Of course creation itself reflects God, but it goes beyond that.  Certain physical states may be more “spiritual” than others at certain times.  Thus, kneeling to pray put our bodies in a submissive posture, which can aid our prayers.  Or we stand to praise God, rather than recline on a couch during worship.   God gave humanity the special privilege of being created in His image, and we in turn should “image” God to the rest of creation as well as to each other.

In this line of thought, our form of government should image God’s governance of His creation.  Having a king, then, (regardless of whether the king acts well or poorly) gives us a physical reminder that we serve a heavenly king.  Serving a king (whether or not we agree with him) trains and prepares us to serve the King of Kings.

Thus, king’s should at times be dressed regally to reflect the splendor and majesty of kingly rule.  Also, a king should lead in service, modeling himself after how Jesus exercised His kingship (St. Louis IX of France and Emperor Michael II of Byzantium are notable examples of this).  Either way, it is the office of kingship that teaches us about God’s Kingship over creation. It has nothing to do with the person itself, who got the job merely by accident of birth.  And that’s the point (in part): some have the job of lawyer, or shoemaker, and some have the job of pantomiming the kingship of God.  Democracy, in contrast, gives us not just a poor but even detrimental spiritual example (the argument goes), because it essentially states, “What you want, you get.”  Democracy then, can encourage the worst of our spiritual impulses.

When we get to the democratic movements that sweep America and France we will make the case for a different form of government.  For now, I want students to understand the logic and motivation behind the actions and attitudes like James and Charles.

As some of you may know, the title of this site is drawn from the historian Kenneth Clarke, one of my favorites.  Last week we looked at parts of the ‘Protest and Communication” episode of his epic “Civilisation” series.  I include the entire episode below if you are interested, but even if you had time to see just the first few minutes, that alone reveals how much insight art can give into an era.