English Liberty and American Liberty: Thoughts on Mixed Constitution

Americans find it difficult to distinguish between a liberty and a right, and we find it impossible to tie a right to an obligation. One reason may be our failure to see that politics has always advanced from two sources of authority, not just one.

In the Top-Down form, the person ruling has a right to the government. This view is often further articulated: he has a right to the territory as a whole. It sounds authoritarian, but from the perspective of the average person, it was pretty reasonable to submit to. Most people accepted some form of primogeniture for inheritance, which meant that rights were more vertical than horizontal – received and transmitted, rather than an agreement between living persons. How can we take from the king what we did not give to him? Even when a ruler is dethroned, it was more a change in personality than in system – the new monarch assumed all the forms of the old in order to legitimize himself.

In the Bottom-Up form, people have always naturally assembled together in whatever living conditions they happen to be in, and it was not unusual for elections to take place in even “premodern” societies. In other words, people naturally try to order themselves when living together, and towns have often included councils to act on their own behalf, simply for the need of cooperative action. Both have been necessary in history, because some kind of ordering principle or authority is always needed; they existed roughly in conjunction, in varying ways, through the European Middle Ages. But while both were political necessities, it was really the Top-Down form that carried authority, perhaps because wealth and military power created very real distances between the ruler and the ruled.

But the whole interaction was changed by the growth of the State in the 16th and 17th Centuries, as the Top-Down form began to be more effective in extending down into the intricacies of life. The French example of this Absolutism (Louis XIV) is clear, but we should also recognize that the British growth of central government, lagging behind slightly, further included as one of its arms the increasing power of Parliament – not as an authoritative representation of “the People,” but as a part of the Top-Down form. Late eighteenth century British radicals rather saw Parliament as an obstruction to the reform and democratic ideology they lobbied for. On the opposite side, Rousseau transformed contract theory to negate any connections between Past and Future – for Jean-Jacques, political relations are solely horizontal, so the Bottom-Up form is the only legitimate one. This was a translation of Locke from “the people mutually partook in forming government, and its functions should reflect that” to “the government is the People.”

The growth of the State’s functions meant that everyone had to talk in terms of the State – and Bottom-Up could no longer coexist with Top-Down, because they lobbied for the same seats of power. Advances in liberty have come from both forms, though: Magna Carta and English religious toleration both needed concessions (involuntary or voluntary) from the king; on the other hand, the Bottom-Up forms have probably contributed to desires for self-government and the creation of political identity. At least until sometime in the 19th Century, more libertarian gains (negative liberties) were made from Top-Down forms, and more positive definitions of society (creating civic participation) were made from Bottom-Up forms.

As quoted in my earlier post, England has generally accepted these contradictions in her constitution. In America, while “democracy” was claimed by very few of the Founders, the Bottom-Up self-interpretation became standard in the 19th Century. We too are mixed, though; despite the rhetoric, representatives do not actually function as if their constituents were their bosses – just their electors. We give lofty respect to the office, if not the person, of president. In other words, our government is more than the people in it, and therefore it has more authority than the Bottom-Up could ever supply. It is vertically enduring. If we are to have a better understanding of liberty, we need to recognize not only its variety of forms, but its several sources. If the rhetoric of one form overruns our mixed practice, our liberty will perish with it.

Bryan Wandel
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.

2 Comments

  • Christina Crippen
    August 24, 2009

    Christina Crippen

    Your point about the “enduring” top-down system seems valid — it seems evident even in the fact that we do have a top-down authority to a larger degree manifested in the President of the United States, the Queen of England, and even past communist dictators over the “good of the state.”

    My thought is that this enduring notion of a top-down system is a practice that goes way back the ancients and their belief in one or several ruling gods that had influence if not ultimate authority over their lives. Anarchy, as you implied, means a loss of liberty, and perhaps either consciously or unconsciously, people have desired to initiate this type of relationship. In the case of the Israelites and subsequently the Christians, this relationship was ordered and initiated by God Himself, and was the ultimate and unchanging pinnacle of Israel’s existence. The great “I AM” existed in ultimate power, and has remained a king over all the nations even now through the manifestation of Jesus Christ as the conquering servant King.

    The servant part, I believe, is a portion of the key to understanding the interplay you mentioned between both forms (top and bottom-down) between both ultimate and influencing authority. God calls His children to welcome His kingdom into this world by first being subsidiaries to Himself, and then by changing the world as servants of God AND man. We are subject ultimately to this enduring rule, but have influence and freedom through this authority to affect the world for the good of man and the glory of God.

  • Bryan Wandel
    August 25, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    The exact relation of God to government has been hotly debated by Christians; ideologues of both forms have claimed that the divine institution of government validates the authority they claim. The divine right of kings mantra is easily apparent, but many early democrats claimed government was “Vox Populi Vox Dei” – the voice of the people is the voice of God. So despite various Christian political theories, like St. Thomas’s, of authority being closely connected to duty, the actual political legacy of Christianity is sometimes ambiguous, because it has been used in a variety of ways.
    One thing I am saying is that top-down and bottom-up are both naturally occurring, and human. Our genius, or blessing, has been a system that does not allow one to dominate. I like the idea of a servant-leader, but that is ultimately subject to the moral suasion of whomever is in authority. But there will be good kings and bad kings. The mixed system, though there is no single, coherent system of thought to underlie it (because it takes in the multiple kinds of authority that are naturally occurring), survives simply because it is effective and we don’t really ask questions of political authority anymore. This is a weird salvation we have received, but this inattention to an important question in modern America has made us less susceptible to ideologues who take a single line of argument on a high speed train right over the contradictory sources of authority that rule in practicality.