An Alternative Perspective on Anglo-American Economic Liberties
As economic freedom gains traction in different spheres of the world, with marked successes most notable in Asia of late, understanding how markets come about within a state of economic freedom are tied closely to limitations on arbitrary executive powers.
Michael Patrick Leahy’s Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological origins of the Tea Party movement assess the emergence of the Tea Party movement in the United States, which gained steam in 2008, arguing the US draws on a concept in early North American colonies that merits a study of its own: that the English tradition of liberty in their then ancestral homeland was best exemplified the period of the pre-Norman Conquest I 1066.
Leahy’s work is praised by, among others, Randy E. Barnett, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown Law Center, and Richard E. Wagner, a professor of economics at George Mason University.
Yet it has received relatively little attention.
While the Magna Carta and other limitations on the power of kings (executives) foreshadows liberty’s fuller expression in an American ideal as the Founders understood it, the English roots in Leahy’s work place a far greater emphasis on the Norman Yoke and its impact on the Anglo psyche. One which lasted until – and was transplanted into – the early settlements of British North America. Though this cultural memory may be lost, at one time all knew a yoke was used to tie cattle. By definition it implied various forms of bondage over the centuries.
The Norman Conquest and battle for economic liberty; the early American colonies
British politician and journalist Daniel Hannan summarizes the origins of this impetus to which early Americans gave credence: During the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror parceled out almost the entire country among his mercenaries and liegemen after the success of the conquest. “At least 92 per cent of England was owned by men who had been born on the other side of the Channel.”
The progress toward personal liberty, free contract, and equal access to the common law was suspended by the conquest, says Hannan. The poor were taxed harshly and an audit of all property in the land was conducted to gain control over it in the Domesday book (a “tax collectors manual”, writes Paul Kingsnorth in the left-leaning Guardian) . William declared every inch of England belonged to him.
“The Anglo-Saxon system of government and economy was razed to the ground. The lands of over 4,000 English lords passed to fewer than 200 Norman and French barons,’ as a special feature in The Economist put described it recently. “The English were removed from high governmental and ecclesiastical office. By 1073 only two English bishops were left, according to Hugh Thomas of the University of Miami.
In the words of the early twelfth-century Anglo Norman chronicler, Orderic Vitalis: “The English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed”. Hannan concludes that only in the 17th century did England finally throw off the Norman yoke; though others on the fringe, argue the legacy continues, with some indirect implications for persistent notions of class in Britain, which Americans instinctively reject.
Anecdotally, on the passing of billionaire Duke of Westminster – an inheritor of aristocratic land holdings – the Financial Times recalled advice he’d give to young entrepreneurs asking how best they could emulate his success: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror,” he replied (with a bit of jest).
Restoring Liberty in a ‘New England’
For those who made their way across the Atlantic for a new start pursuing life, liberty, and happiness (synonymous with “throwing off the Norman Yoke”, as Leahy puts it), the Norman Yoke looms large. Pennsylvania for example “adopted a radically democratic constitution that reflected the delegates understanding of that idyllic pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon governance,” he argues.
At the same time back in England, John Lilbourne had gone so far as to argue that “all English kings and their subordinates in the Norman Conquest of 1066 had illegally held and exercised power”. His revolt in England, alongside Levellers demanding property rights, limited government, and the rule of law inspired New Englanders and led to the birth of a uniquely American form of constitutionalism: “One created from an amalgam of Puritan covenant theology, John Lulburne’s Norman Yoke and the growing secular school of natural rights,” argues Leahy, in his assessment of American constitutionalism. The origins lie in the Puritan Minister John Wise who first led the charge in the town of Ipswich in 1687, combing these three ideas in rebellion against early forms of centralized Royal excesses violating the elected local governments.
At the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, Leahy writes many delegates were influenced by the arguments of the English Whig Obadiah Hulme, believing that “whatever is of Saxon establishment is truly constitutional; but whatever is of Norman is heterogenous, and partakes of a tyrannical Spirit”.
Leahy tackles Thomas Jefferson’s own understanding of the Norman Yolk (which he sought to advance to ‘anyone who would listen’) and the subsequent influence on the Declaration of Independence. He assesses later debates between federalists and anti-federalists, for example, through the same prism – even if not explicitly.
In reference to the Norman Yoke, Ron Chernow in his extraordinary Alexander Hamilton, also cited by Leahy, says many delegates to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention accepted that “there are many customs, forms, principles and doctrines that have be handed down to us by tradition; which will serve as so many landmarks, to guide our steps to the foundation of this ancient structure, which buried under the rubbish collected by time and new establishments’ .
Defending liberty by better understanding its opposite
The Magna Carta in 1215 and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights are merely only milestones in linear historical progress, but also reactionary: inspired by an impetus to restore an original perceived state of Anglo-Saxon economic and political liberty that remain the subject of debate today.
These hand-downs of traditions among the early colonies through to the American founding stretched centuries. Understanding and exploring those understandings of the Norman Yoke, which is evidently making a revival in England, may be worth the attention of North American scholars, too. Economic freedom exists within a set of institutional arrangements, many of which emerge by spontaneous order.
Monarchy itself was not opposed for the sake of its’ existence, but on account of the arbitrary power exercised by monarchs and the undermining of the economic liberties and political freedoms that followed. This rendered monarchs illegitimate, not the advent of republican democracy per se. The issues with monarchy were not exclusive to monarchy, but to all executive powers (and more recently legislatures), an argument Leahy carries over to the United States today.
Patrick Michael Leahy’s work provides a valuable contribution to understanding the spontaneous order of ideas, institutions and traditions conductive to economic liberty in the Anglosphere, assessing the rise of the Tea Party defense of free markets through a historical lineage of thought spanning nearly 1000 years, a lineage in which the year 1066 has as much importance for the United States as it does in the annals of British history.
Garreth Bloor is a vice president of the IRR, the oldest classical liberal think tank in South Africa. He served as a former executive politician in the country and is the founder of a venture capital firm. Bloor currently resides in Toronto.