Anglo-Saxon Democracy

I just assume the America Firsters will dress like this.

The Angles and the Saxons, from whence we get “Anglo-Saxon” were two Germanic (aka Teutonic) tribes of people first mentioned by the Roman writer, Tacitus in 98BCE. These two groups invaded Britain around 500CE and ruled the roost, so to speak until the Norman invasion in 1066. Even in the 19th century this qualified as what we professional historians call “a long time ago.”

Many 19th century writers in Britain and the United States argued that fundamental notions of liberal society such as property, liberty, and restraints on state power found their roots in the political traditions of the Anglo-Saxon “races.” These 19th century writers pointed to quasi-parliamentary traditions, my favorite is the Witenagemot, to argue that forms of representative democracy were not recent inventions but went back centuries.

In his foundational book, Race: The History of an Idea in America, Thomas Gossett wrote about the appeal of the “Anglo-Saxon race” in the early Republic of the United States:

In this country, the Teutonic origins theory of representative institutions appealed even more than in England to historians who had great faith in democracy. The theory was useful in defending representatives institutions against the attacks…that democracy as a theory of government, had not been able to withstand the test of time. Representative government could be shown to have a long, honorable, and successful history. Although freedom was the major theme, there was sometimes another, more chilling note–the idea that freedom was the race heritage of the Germanic peoples but perhaps not that of other peoples. (p.88)

After the Civil War, the notion that North America owed its political traditions and its love of liberty to the Anglo-Saxon race began to dominate our intellectual life. Here’s University of Wisconsin historian William F. Allen in 1870 describing how early settlers of New England maintained rights of private property and democratic governance:

For the first colonists of New England had a free field before them, like the Saxon conquerors of Britain ; and many points in the early land-tenure of New England are strikingly like those described this article. When a town was organized, the process was that “the General Court granted a tract of land to a company of persons. . . . The land was held at first by the company as property in common” (Palfrey, ii. p. 13). This company of proprietors then proceeded to divide the lands by assigning first house-lots (in Marlborough varying from fifteen to fifty acres), then tracts of meadow-land, and in some cases mineral land;” that is, where bog-iron ore was found. Pasture and wood-land remained in common, as the property of the company. New persons admitted as freemen would appear for a time to have become members of the company; but a law of the General Court, in 1660, provided “that hereafter no cottage or dwelling-place shall be admitted to the priviledge of commonage for wood, timber, or herbage, or any other the priviedges that lye in any towne or peculiar, but such as are already in being, or hereafter shall be erected by consent of the towne.” From this time the “commoners” appear as a kind of aristocracy among the inhabitants. Sometimes new members were admitted by special vote, and the commons were gradually divided up. The rights of the proprietors to do this challenged sometimes by the non-proprietors (as in Woburn, in 1741) ; but was maintained by the law of 1660. In Ipswich, the rights of the commoners continued in existence until after the Revolutionary war,when (in 1788) they granted their rights to the town for the purpose of helping to pay the debts of the town. (p. 192)

To our eyes, of course, the trumpeting of the supposedly Anglo-Saxon traditions of property and democracy, hides the racism that was taken for granted at the time. Did the new arrivals really have a “free field before them?” And note that the law only applied to those “admitted as freemen.”

Or consider this passage from the political scientist Francis Lieber in 1863:

We belong to the Anglican tribe, which carries Anglican principles and liberty over the globe, because wherever it moves liberal institutions and a common law full of manly rights and instinct with the principle of an expansive life accompany it. We belong to that race whose obvious task it is among other proud and sacred tasks, to rear and spread civil liberty over vast regions in every part of the earth, on continent and isle. We belong to that tribe which alone has the word Self-Government.(p. 67)

Gradually, as the need to prove democracy had ancient roots receded and the need to exclude certain races from the political process grew. By the early twentieth century, Gossett concluded:

As it developed, however, it came more and more to mean that the “Old Americans”–those of English and Northern European antecedents–were the “real Americans.” As time passed, it lost its strong and simple pride in democratic institutions and drew its racial lines more exclusively. (p. 122)

This kind of Anglo-Saxonism was quite common in defenses of Jim Crow. When Earnest Sevier Cox argued in the 1950s that all African Americans should be sent “back to Africa,” he did so, in part, because African Americans were nothing but foreigners who could not adapt to the white man’s system of government:

The Bill of Rights in our Constitution is not the product of the races of mankind. The Bill of Rights issued from the woods of Old Saxony. It is a racial heritage of the Anglo-Saxon and allied racial stocks which make up by far the greater portion of the nation’s white population. The American Constitution with its checks and balances to preserve liberty has been copied, basically, by a good many nations but the spirit of it is all but inoperative save in those nations whose peoples are in descent, in the main, from the same race that instituted the Constitution in the United States. The background of the Bill of Rights is tribal. (p. 17)

One of the central themes of William D. Workman’s defense of segregation was that punitive extra-legal measures against those who broke the customs of the South, and if the law happened to look the other way, well, heck those were just part of the racial makeup of the White South:

To the Southerner, as to his Anglo-Saxon-Teuton forebears, the law springs not alone from the law books but from the combined law sense of the tribal group. Where the offense against the written law combines with offense against custom, reaction is severe and punishment complete, not only with respect to the penalties imposed by the statute but — more importantly to the individual in many cases — with respect to the judgment of the community. The Southerner whose misdeed makes him an outcast within the group becomes, in fact as well as in name, an outlaw. But where the law itself runs counter to the sense of the group, no such lasting stigma attaches to the offender. (p. 8)

So, when Trump complained about “shithole countries” sending their people here, he also said that Norwegians would be fine. When Tucker Carlson, the confused face of White Supreemacy, warns that immigrants are unsuited to the American Way of Life, we know what he means. When conservatives lie about Somali immigration in my old hometown, we should fix those lies in the inglorious tradition that gave birth to them. The “new” group of America Firsters are simply trotting out the same line that has endured for centuries:

The reality of large segments of our society as well as the long-term existential future of America as a unique country with a unique culture and a unique identity being put at unnecessary risk is something our leaders can afford to ignore no longer.As such, America’s legal immigration system should be curtailed to those that can contribute not only economically, but have demonstrated respect for this nation’s culture and rule of law. America’s borders must be defended, and illegal immigration must be stopped without exception.

The Teutonic origins of democracy was wrong in the nineteenth century, was a tired racist cliche in the twentieth. Here in the twenty-first you’d think it would be dead. But there are always some folks who will keep it alive. And it is up to all of us to oppose them.

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5 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon Democracy

  1. I doubt the majority of the English descend from Angles and Saxons. But, even if that were true, I know for a fact that the majority of Americans don’t descend from the English. American ethnic and regional culture has always been mixed from diverse sources. That shouldn’t surprise anyone with even the most basic historical knowledge.

    It’s interesting that Thomas Paine, as an Englishman who preferred to identify as a citizen o the world, justified American independence based on the known fact at the time that a lot of the colonists were not English. Multiple colonies had non-English majorities and largely unassimilated (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, etc).


  2. “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions”
    That’s going to play well with the Irish-American vote?
    And actually as a Brit I would point out that these ‘anglo-saxon’ traditions actually have their roots in the Magna Carta which was put together by a group of nobles with strong Norman (that’s in France these days) family ties.
    I would pass another comment, but this might be a family friendly site


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