How The English – Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World
By Daniel Hannan
Inventing Freedom elaborates on the themes in Daniel Hannan’s “The New Road to Serfdom.” The earlier book, subtitled “A Letter of Warning to America,” is exactly that. In it Hannan sounded the alarm against forsaking our political inheritance and following Europe into “uniformity, socialism and insolvency: “The New Road to Serfdom. Inventing Freedom identifies the pilots who would take us there, but not until the closing chapters.
The first three hundred pages are devoted to explaining why freedom, parliamentary democracy and equality before the law are products of the Anglosphere, English-speaking civilization.
Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law common open markets, and unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society. They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words. The fact that these ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin.
The author traces the roots of exceptionalism in the Anglosphere. One becomes a citizen of the Anglosphere by embracing its ideals, not by virtue of DNA or ethnic origin. He borrows from the American writer James C. Bennett for a more elaborate definition.
To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures. These include individualism, the rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values. Nations comprising the Anglosphere share a common historical narrative in which the Magna Carta, the English and American Bills of Rights, and such Common-Law principles as trial by jury, presumption of innocence and “a man’s home is his castle” are taken for granted.
As to which nations, the author names five core countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Most definitions, he writes, also include Ireland, Singapore, Hong Kong and “what’s left of Britain’s colonial archipelago (Bermuda, the Falkland Island, and so on.)” India qualifies as well and is discussed separately.
He examines the historical landmarks on the road to freedom – the Magna Carta, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and, finally, the U.S. Constitution and how they contributed to “the miracles of the past three centuries–”
(T)he unprecedented improvements in democracy, in longevity, in freedom, in literacy, in calorie intake, in infant survival rates, in height, in equality of opportunity—came about largely because of the individualist market system developed by the Anglosphere.
He notes that fortuitous island geography was helpful as it eliminated the need for a standing Army, but required a robust Navy. The people of what would become Great Britain were able to develop a political configuration that differed from the rest of Europe’s authoritarian regimes and from most of human history. The book’s thesis is that the principles underlying that configuration spread to British colonies around the globe and changed the world.
Among the influences that helped to bring about the miracles the author includes Protestant political culture, “which not only encouraged a proliferation of denominations but also encouraged an individualistic and democratic ethos – one that has outlived its religious origins.”
The association that was almost universally made between religious toleration and political pluralism, between Protestantism and parliamentary democracy, between religious and civic freedoms, is no longer made, but the values it created survive.
Hannan reveals that the oft-quoted conclusion of the Gettysburg Address, “that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” did not originate with Lincoln and would have been familiar to most of his audience.
It came from the prologue to what was probably the earliest translation of the Holy Scriptures into the English language: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people, by the people.” The author was theologian John Wycliffe1 and the words, remarkably appeared in 1384.
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people” was, in Wycliffe’s mind, a concept with political, religious, and educational implications. If men and women were free to make up their minds on theological questions, they would also be better suited to independence in secular affairs.
Positing that, “The English language has been both a vehicle and a guarantor of liberty down the centuries….” Hannan credits the sheer number of English words for enabling Anglosphere writers’ unambiguous expression. He also perceives a connection between the English language and the distinctive political system of the Anglosphere. Although he admits it is difficult to discern which came first. He notes such early English phrases as “liberty of conscience” (1580), “civil liberty” (1644) and “liberty of the press” (1769).
In keeping with his emphasis on a connection between language and politics Hannan cites a scene from George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Newspeak philologist Symes explains how independent thinking can be curtailed by vocabulary reduction. The range of thought is narrowed because there are no words in which to express dissent.
The petty tyranny of political correctness comes to this writer’s mind and the not so petty effort to silence opposing ideas. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pursued PC to its logical conclusion when, in a January 2014 radio interview, he labeled pro life and anti gun control conservatives as “extreme” and suggested they leave the state.
Hannan observes that every member of the Anglosphere, except the U.S., now has laws regulating speech. Various forms of opinion have been declared outside the pale of acceptable human discourse, usually on the grounds that they might offend someone. And the U.S. is under pressure – from politicians, academia, the U.S. Attorney General and federal bureaucrats who have nothing better to do – to follow suit.
Hannan fears that most Americans do not realize how fortunate they are and have become careless about preserving their inheritance.
What do we mean by “becoming American”? When we break it down, there are three irreducible elements. First, accepting the values encoded in the U.S. Constitution: free speech, the division of powers, religious toleration, and so on. Second understanding the unwritten code bound up with those values: civic engagement, open competition, private contract, and equality for women. Third speaking English.… What we mean by Anglo-Saxon civilization is the set of cultural, social, and political assumptions parceled together by the English-speaking world.
Hannan reminds, as have other historians, Pauline Maier and David Lefer among others, that the Founders did not see themselves as revolutionaries but as Englishmen standing up for the rights won for them by their forbearers. Their hopes to preserve those rights through reconciliation with Britain were dashed by an angry sovereign and a rotten ministry.
The constitution was not just an American achievement. It was, as its authors were keen to stress, the ultimate expression and vindication of the creed of the English-speaking peoples. The ideal of the rule of law, representative government, personal liberty, ideals that had their genesis in those ancient forest meetings described by Tacitus, had found their fullest and highest expression.
These were never universally shared values, and are disputed by some within the nations of the Aglosphere. A recent column by Jonah Goldberg2 provides insight as to why.
Intellectuals are the storytellers of civilization, and in capitalist societies the stories they tell are usually some variant of Balzac’s dictum “behind every great fortune is a great crime.” The richer the body politic gets, the more intellectuals it creates, much the same way the human body produces more and more of the bad kind of cholesterol. The result is the same. The arteries harden.
Fred Siegel also has something to say on this topic in his book.
Hannan discusses the mindset of those who view both past and present as a struggle of the oppressed against oppressors. For them the sins of colonialism outweigh the Anglosphere’s contributions to the world. The author devotes most of a chapter to the related issue of slavery.
These facts are worth reprising, because slavery is still thrown in the face of the Anglosphere’s people by their detractors. It cannot be stressed too often: the institution of slavery existed in every age, in every society, on every continent. What distinguished the English-speaking nations was not that they practiced slavery, but that they crushed it.
The historical record shows that slavery was no respecter of race and was endemic in African and Arab societies. Muslims traded in Christians and Christians enslaved Moors, and so on. “On the eve of the American Civil War, there were three thousand black slaveholders in the United States.“
Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton aren’t likely to include these facts in their speeches any time soon. Nor for that matter is President Obama. Along with this president’s frequent emphasis on the victim status of favored minorities, the other standard White House polemic is that “the rich” are culpable by definition. And the corollary is that equality under the law is insufficient because it does not produce equality of result. Wealth must not only be redistributed within the United States. but from the United States to poor nations.
As Hannan points out, this president is the foremost advocate of that worldview. Along with his evident lack of respect for Britain – a statement the author supports with many examples – the president “also disdains the things that Britain bequeathed to the 13 colonies and, through them, the republic: the common law, a peculiar emphasis on personal freedom and property rights, distrust of government, a determination that laws should not be made, nor taxes levied, save by elected representatives.”
The author warns against Obama’s desire to have America follow Europe into the moral and economic bankruptcy of an unaccountable government. As a British member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan is well qualified to discuss the EU’s assumption of power from its once sovereign member nations, despite the wishes of those whose lives are affected.
Hannan describes the difference between the Anglosphere conception of civil liberties –“that is, as inherited rights won by our ancestors at an identifiable moment and passed down in the form of inheritance – and the European notion that rights are bestowed by governments.”
This is an important distinction because it is also the rationale for the centralization of power by the Obama administration.
For a tour de force of British history in clear and incisive language Hannan can’t be bested. He writes with erudition, verve and passion, occasionally salted with dry humor. It is difficult to do justice to a book of such scope in a review. In fact, Inventing Freedom would be a great reading assignment for a course on Western Civilization, if such were still taught at American universities. This reviewer’s only quibble is that the frequent repetitions of the attributes of the Anglosphere are tiresome. But then again, in the present political climate, they probably bear repeating.
The book ends with a quote from Joseph Warren, the man who sent Paul Revere on his famous ride. Warren was attempting to rally his countrymen to defend their freedoms.
“You are to decide the question on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.
Hannan urges Americans to heed that advice.