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Lost in the past: A tale of progress and confusion

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted February 19, 2007

Once upon a time, that time being three hundred years ago, it was easier and easier to become confused in the England of old. There were ancients who still remembered, if vaguely, life under the absolutists. These people had more clear memories of life with no monarch, after Charles I had been tried and executed. So did the greybeards, if only vague ones.

The seventeenth century was supposed to be the progress of the people, as expressed in a revered Parliament. Formally, the constitutional battles did relate to the preservation of the Church of England, and there were many Englishmen who saw it in exactly those terms. James II was a Roman Catholic, and it was easy in memory to peg all of the Stuarts as Catholic too, even if this was not really true of James I and Charles I. Those who saw the seventeenth-century struggles in those terms were respected for their loyalty, of course, but were not considered to be "with it," that much. More fact-oriented folk could see what was really going on.

The real victor was the English Parliament. Even since the Civil War, each succeeding monarch had to concede more and more of the royal prerogative to Parliament. A commonsensical person could see the way things had gone since the execution of Charles I, and saw no evidence that the trend would end. Queen Anne even put up with a two-party system, and had reconciled herself with governing in co-operation with distasteful Whigs. No need to wonder why practical men considered Parliament to be a mighty institution indeed.

These men included the practical idealists, of which there were quite a few. What better time than in 1707 to be one? Parliament, by grace of God, was wresting power from an absolute figure and returning it to the people, more or less. At least, it could be said that power was distributed far more widely as of 1707 than it ever had been. Why shouldn't the idealistic type cultivate a due admiration for England's wonderful Parliament? Doing so grounded idealism in far more realistic terms than the old Orangeman could; that was clear.

It should have been an earthly paradise for those who did so. Why, then were so many of them becoming confused? Especially on the eve of what could be seen as a great victory for the Parliamentary principle, the forthcoming Act of Union between England and Scotland?

Rumors of corruption, bribery and shifty deals were easy to dismiss out of hand, after all. Sure, Parliament was not governed by saints, but then again, there were few saints around anyway. When matched up against the old tyrants, parliament certainly appeared saintly, and it held up well in the saint department when compared with other institutions. All this meant was a slight shift from pure idealism to a more pragmatic approach. Didn't it?  If politics was in part a game, then why not play along? Little harm can be done by that – and besides, you were free not to play the political game.

Shrugging it off, though, was more difficult than described. There were heroes in Parliament – weren't they? Were not all Parliamentarians the sons in spirit of the heroic Pym? Okay, so bribery does take place, but it's just a means of encouragement. Common prudence can protect oneself, and none of those rumored activities explicitly violated any statute. The Parliamentarians certainly had an idealistic cast to them, and the shadows of the earlier heroes, of the struggles of a century past, clung well to the then-current occupants of Parliament's benches. Some of them were even noble.

That must be the reason why so many of the youngfolk seemed so politically listless. In fact, many of them seemed not to be any kind of idealist at all. It was all matter-of-fact to so many of them – just get what you can out of it and cut a deal. When favoured with the tales of the old heroes of the institution, their eyes tended to glaze over. A few seemed oddly brusque. Why do these tales of heroism not reach the young, except for the ones who have led a sheltered life?

It is hard to pinpoint. Practical idealism was a hardy weed in its time, but the soil must have changed somehow. There's hardly an idealist to be found, outside of religious circles. In fact, practical idealism seems to have been the plowshare for plain selfishness. Sao many of the young think nary of the demands of State, or of the glories of State. The incentives of plain hustling seem to behearken the young.

Admittedly, there was little true nobility in Parliament; it is, after all the House of Commons. But there is some. Why do the youngsters insist upon such cynicism when discussing motives? Yes, it is true, everyone has a self-interest. Nevertheless, we do have idealistic sides, too.

Even talk of Hobbes failed to bring the young to their senses. Graphic tales of the wickedness, anarchy, and brute-mindedness that accompany a decline in the fine art of political participation swayed them none. Some of them clung to a somewhat ignoble fellow by the name of Locke, and thus think that the hazards of disorganization have been fully answered. The long-term costs of treating so lightly an august institution such as Parliament do not even seem to occur to them. They actually preferred the quest for riches!

O, the times! Why would so many of the idealistic young be so thoughtless with respect to the great ideals of the last hundred years? It's all right and good to proclaim that the last century is over and done with, but many of the people who lived in those times are so very much alive! Why would the young be so callous and cruel as to insist upon a completely new age in the way that they do? If they had had any social feeling, they would have become Puritans. That way, the worthies would know what to expect from them. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

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