October 27, 2005

Medieval Constitutionalism, Part Two

Verity's post spurred some thoughts (which I had left as a comment) similar to those in Lex's post below, which for convenience I have moved up here. The whole story of medieval constitutionalism as the root source of modern constitutional democracy is not well known; for example, Jonah Goldberg in his column in NRO today misses that whole story. Even less well-known is the even more important story of the ancient roots of that constitutionalism and the role England played in their survival and further evolution into modern society, as discussed by authors such as Macfarlane and Veliz.

FWIW, my comments were as follows:

I knew that comment would get someone going. Yes, this gets us back to our old buddies, Tacitus and the forest Germans, via Montesquieu. The Danes share this tradition of tribal assemblies with the English-speaking peoples. The Icelandic assembly at Thingvellir was one example of this; the Manx parliament, the Tynwald -- a cognate word, really -- is another, that has managed to stay alive into modern times. Scandinavia managed to carry much of this tradition forward into the period of medieval constitutionalism, as did England. Downing discusses the relatively robust survival of medieval constitutionalism in Sweden into the period of bureaucratic authoritarianism on the Continent. I haven't seen a discussion of the Danish case, but clearly Denmark preserved a stronger civil society than much of the Continent despite the unfortunate imposition of Roman law.

"Democracy" is a difficult word to use meaningfully in political discussion, since it is understood so differently by different people. I always try to use "constitutional democracy", or better still, "constitutional representative government". But that gets long-winded. At any rate, the independence of mind of the Danes is no sudden phenomenon; I don't think the the Dansih prime minister's admirable response is a coincidence. It is rooted in the historical strength of Danish civil society.

Posted by James C. Bennett at October 27, 2005 11:57 AM

Mr. Bennet,

While I certainly agree with you that "Democracy" means different things to different people, I think it's worth noting that "constitution" means something different in an American context than in a British one. Strictly speaking, the US is a Constitutional Federal Republic, and not a democracy in the the usual sense of the term (direct election). Nor should the US Constitution and it's subsequent body of related common law, as well as those of individual States with their own systems, be mistaken for the English understanding of constitution (or common law). The US system is much more rigid and strictly defined...

Here's a good overview by John Adams, Second President of the US:


"A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America", by John Adams (1787). In this text, Adams reviews the earlier forms of representative governments as practiced by other peoples.

Posted by: A Scott Crawford at November 2, 2005 01:16 PM


Posted by: generic synthroid at August 16, 2006 12:29 PM
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