Monday, June 22, 2015

Dynasties, Courtiers, And Wars

     Bill Whittle’s recent video manifesto: me thinking hard about one of the great historical transitions in Western sociopolitics: that from limited monarchy to absolute monarchy.

     As far as I know, medieval European monarchies, with the notable exception of the Scottish and Irish varieties, were all dynastic in nature; i.e., when the monarch died, his successor was determined by the rule of primogeniture. That rule continued in force through the Renaissance, and into the somewhat more muddled “early industrial” era of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. The foremost inheritor of that monarchic tradition, Great Britain, continues it today, though today’s British monarch is a powerless figurehead maintained solely for reasons of tradition.

     However, medieval monarchies were better behaved – in most cases, much better – than those of the succeeding era. Kings and queens did enjoy lifestyles more lavish than any but the richest of the nobility. They did tend to be “above the law” in certain respects, at least for as long as they didn’t conspicuously flaunt such an immunity. But in their behavior as rulers, they showed a degree of restraint, and of de facto deference to individuals’ rights, that was absent from the Renaissance and early Industrial Era monarchs. More, royal heirs deemed weak or of low character were more often dispatched by their families before they could don a crown.

     M. Stanton Evans covers much of this ground in his book The Theme Is Freedom. Evans highlights the greater influence of Christianity on medieval monarchs. Granted that the medieval clergy was more able to mobilize popular sentiment against the king should he transgress, but this fails to be a complete explanation. Why, after all, was Renaissance Europe, which was no less Christian than what came before it, not equally able to restrain its royal rulers?

     The answer might lie in the differences between medieval and Renaissance royal courts. Nobles during the medieval era had important functions of their own. They administered the lands over which they presided. They dispensed justice locally. They were often involved to a significant degree with the Church: owing to primogeniture, a noble family with more than one son often sought to have him enter the priesthood as “the next best thing” to inheriting his father’s title – the origin of the old saw about “sending the idiot of the family into the clergy.” The upshot was a degree of local authority and responsibility that prevented the noble from spending great amounts of time away from his fiefdom.

     The Renaissance and later years exhibited the centralizing tendency of power. As the medieval era waned, kings and princes began to assume the authorities that had previously been wielded by nobles. The nobles’ loss of their earlier functions “freed them up” to join the royal court. Indeed, the royal court became just about the only place in a kingdom from which any vestige of nobles’ traditional powers could be wielded...and only by exerting influence upon the monarch.

     It is notable that a Renaissance king was often said to have punished a noble by telling him that “your lands are in need of your attention:” an implicit dismissal from the royal court. The noble was thus informed that he had “fallen out of favor:” he was no longer welcome at court, and therefore without any influence on royal decisions. He had little choice but to accept banishment and return to his fiefdom, where he would usually find that all was as he had left it.

     Equally notable, most medieval-era wars were not fought by kings. They almost always arose over quarrels between nobles. They were fought by armies of baronial retainers, plus a leavening of young commoners who hoped to gain the noble’s attention and perhaps “rise above the soil” to which their families were attached. Thus, the military power of a medieval realm tended to be well dispersed among the nobility. That had two salutary effects. First, it inhibited the monarch from levying taxes directly on the common folk. Second, it provided a check on royal behavior, the importance of which was demonstrated at Runnymede. When Renaissance kings succeeded in directly taxing commoners and common trade, they also acquired the financial wherewithal to maintain armies that the nobles, their own revenue streams weakened thereby, could not afford.

     The parallels with the devolution of American federalism, which first became blatant after the ratification of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, could not be more striking.

     No one of our time expects any great reduction in federal power during his lifespan. Things have been as they are for a century. If my surmises above are at all accurate, the foundation for federal absolutism can only be unmade by the repeal of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, a development that strikes most persons (and all politicians) as “unthinkable.” But what a difference it would make! Imagine the dissipation of centralized power that would result if our tax system were made truly federal, such that Washington could only tax the state governments, the state governments could only tax the county governments, and so on. Imagine further how local and regional politicians would respond to such a reorganization: by actually paying attention to their local responsibilities, rather than perpetually striving for “higher office.”

     The effect upon American military might would be a two-edged sword. Under such an arrangement, the ability to fund a huge national military establishment would vanish. State militias would become significant once again, and the president would have to request that Congress declare war before demanding to federalize them. The readiness of the Senate to accede to such requests, once again a body of representatives of the state governments, would be lessened. In today’s hyper-militarized world, that might prove unworkable. We’d have to try it to know. (The possibility of a war between New York and New Jersey is merely icing on the cake.)

     It won’t happen, of course. As Isabel Paterson wrote in The God of the Machine, the political “ratchet” only transports power toward the center. It is never re-dispersed. But it makes an appealing thought for a Monday morning...especially for us New Yorkers who’ve “had it” with New Jersey drivers.


Weetabix said...

This kind of makes the Tenth Amendment movement pretty appealing. If we could get the States to work toward a movement to retake their power back from the Feds, it might make people think more about getting county power back from the States.

And, even from the center of the country, watching a NY vs. NJ battle might be enjoyable.

Reg T said...

How about a cage fight between the two governors? Can you imagine Christie in a sumo loincloth ( that qualifies for eye/mind bleach). And Cuomo looks to wear enough hairspray to make a helmet out of his swishy hairstyle, protecting what little gray matter exists beneath it.

I can't imagine either of them being capable of anything beyond - possibly - spanking each other into submission.

As much as I would like to, I really don't believe that the current Federal government would allow Tenth Amendment restoration of state authority any more than Lincoln's government would allow secession.