In 1559, a political dissident in Europe saw a fundamental problem with the reign of kings:
“It is very rare for kings so to control themselves that their will never disagrees with what is just and right; or for them to have been endowed with such great keenness and prudence, that each knows how much is enough. Therefore, men’s fault or failing causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government, so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another; and, if one asserts himself unfairly, there may be a number of censors and masters to restrain his willfulness.”
These words are so republican-sounding that an Englishman must have written them, if we are to take to heart Daniel Hannan’s argument in Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.
The problem: An Englishman didn’t write them.
Hannan’s thesis is that the political principles that made England and America so great—principles of individual liberty, limited and representative government, and the rule of law—evolved from the dank peat of medieval England after the Angles and Saxons invaded the island. These principles were developed and refined through England’s struggles against autocratic kings, Hannan says, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and the American Revolution of 1776, and resulting in the spread of an English-speaking empire across the globe.
“Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these … are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words,” Hannan writes.
Hannan sees in the Anglo-Saxon institution of the Witan, the council of local strongmen, the nascent form of what would become Parliament. He notes instances of kings being invited to rule provided they swear to uphold the law, a precursor to England’s later checks on the monarchy in Magna Carta and during the Glorious Revolution. This land is the fount of our liberties, Hannan argues: “In the damp green island that was [the Anglos’] home, they would evolve theories of kingship and government, of property and contract, of laws and taxation, that were to transform and elevate our species.”
Then the French invaded in 1066, setting up what is a dominant theme running through the entire book—the conflict between autocratic, illiberal continental Europe and the forces of liberty residing across the English Channel. The Normans set up their king, William, and installed their ideas of monarchy and absolute rule on the defeated island.
But the English continued to struggle against the hated French kings, winning concessions along the way. Magna Carta in 1215 was the greatest of these concessions until the Glorious Revolution in 1689, which set up the supremacy of Parliament over the king. And through these struggles the English developed liberal institutions such as the common law and representative government, institutions that allowed liberty to flourish and the English nation to thrive.
Hannan’s history reaches its intellectual climax in what he calls “The Second Anglosphere Civil War”: the American Revolution. This war, he says, was largely a battle not simply over independence but also over whether British colonists in the New World would have the same rights as the British back home. The Revolution was fought along the same line that divided England in the first English Civil War about a century earlier—liberal Whigs versus monarchist Tories—and over the same rights for which the English had fought for centuries.
The American Revolution, culminating in the U.S. Constitution, was the apex of the trajectory that English civilization had been on since its earliest days. From here liberal institutions spread throughout the world by means of the British Empire, and as the colonies gradually gained their independence, an “Anglosphere alliance” formed around the world that defended liberty against the forces of tyranny during the 20th century.
Hannan, a conservative member of the European Parliament, writes deftly and with verve. He marshals an impressive array of information to support his thesis, and when it helps him illustrate a point he peppers his book with anecdotes of his upbringing in Peru. His willingness to break with political correctness is refreshing—his insistence on the superiority of the Anglosphere is only the most obvious example.
However, while he writes with energy and certainty, Hannan sometimes gets carried away. For example, when describing the Norman invasion, he describes a Norman cavalry charge as “an almost unstoppable force,” only to describe the Anglo-Saxon defense “shield-wall” as “an impenetrable line.” What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable line? The unstoppable force wins, apparently, but only after the Anglo-Saxon king has put down a rebellion to his north, his line breaks, and an arrow pierces his eye.
While Hannan makes a strong case, his history of liberty is ultimately deficient. The supposedly straight line from soggy Anglo-Saxon England to the American Constitution is actually more like a river that gathers water from tributaries, gradually gaining strength and volume, as it flows downhill. While Hannan’s book means to be an account of the development of liberty, all in about 400 pages, the way he ignores those non-tributaries means that we have only a partial account of the story.
Take religion, for example. Hannan concedes that religion served a useful role in the past—“The centrality of Protestantism to the Anglosphere’s cultural and political identity was the single biggest surprise to me when I researched this book”—and he sometimes refers to the defenders of liberty as Whig-Protestants. However, Hannan also argues that the greatest achievement of the Protestant Reformation was to encourage individualism and set English society on the path toward religious pluralism. He leaves no place for a positive role of religion in a free society today.
This account of the role of religion leaves open a tremendous number of unanswered questions. Why were Protestants so supportive of liberty in England? Was it something about their theology? And where did their theology come from?
The answers to these questions would be inconvenient for Hannan’s thesis. The republican-sounding quote at the beginning of this review came not from an Englishman in 1559, but from the Protestant reformer John Calvin, a classically educated Frenchman chased out of his native country to Switzerland. Calvin was no Whig libertarian, but his ideas did lend support to some Whiggish priorities, such as limited government. Hannan never mentions John Calvin by name, even though Calvinism was tremendously influential in both England and Scotland—and then in America—during and after the Reformation. The idea that a Frenchman could have positively influenced the development of English liberties is just too inconvenient for Hannan, so he simply ignores it.
Hannan’s history leaves out other complications. His description of the American Revolution and the Constitution makes them sound like the fulfillment of English destiny, the natural outgrowth of English principles. Much is true in this description, but it leaves out the fact that the Constitution was a significant innovation on English political practice. The American founders were certainly aware of the Constitution’s innovation, but Hannan does not appear to be.
Hannan is right to point out the continuities and trajectories that have existed in the English-speaking world, but his history is far too tidy. As a result, Hannan errs in two primary ways.
First, Hannan takes legal institutions to be the foundation of freedom, but ignores the fact that other factors have contributed, as well, and in even more fundamental ways. Alexis de Tocqueville, another Frenchman who Hannan does quote, attributed the success of liberty among the first Puritans in America in large part to their strong morality—a morality shaped by Protestant, and especially Calvinist, Christianity. Their strong families and propensity to form local associations created the environment in which free institutions actually could work. Hannan acknowledges that a free society allows these more organic cultural institutions to form, but he does not acknowledge that a strong culture—especially strong families and local communities—provide the necessary foundation for political and legal freedom to exist. For him institutions are all-important.
Second, Hannan’s account of the organic evolution of liberal institutions ultimately grounds freedom in a particular cultural tradition, a foundation that is far weaker than what it could be. Political rights do not just have their roots in soggy England, but in what is, in fact, right—that is, in the deeper reality of morality and human nature that transcends a national culture. This deeper understanding of the foundations of liberal institutions means that people from countries outside of England can have insights into human freedom, as well.
England does have a strong tradition of liberty, as Hannan ably shows, but people outside of England have contributed to the development and understanding of liberty, too. Beyond Calvin and Tocqueville, thinkers such as the Florentine Machiavelli and a third Frenchman, Montesquieu, have brought their insights into human nature and government to bear in ways that have furthered the cause of liberty. And this is to say nothing of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and other classical thinkers who all thought deeply about freedom, human nature, and politics.
Hannan’s well-written book is an excellent politically incorrect history of England. But his failure to account for the full lineage of liberty ultimately leaves Inventing Liberty incomplete.