Left to the Naive



Meanwhile back in France, October 1 is the anniversary of the first meeting of the Legislative Assembly in 1791, the body that gave us the terms “left” and “right” in politics. But mostly left.

Try to follow a quick dismal backstory here. In 1789 the hapless Louis XVI summoned the French parody equivalent of a Parliament, the Estates-General, for the first time since 1614. It promptly deadlocked, and then the “Third Estate,” the commoners, decided their chamber was the whole legislature and turned itself into the National Assembly. Then it became the National Constituent Assembly on the theory that the sovereign authority of the French people was in its hands.

It then proceeded to be in practice the entire government, a system known as “convention government,” where instead of checking the executive the legislature takes on that role as well and who’s going to stop us? Then it dissolved following elections to the Legislative Assembly, which despite the pale twitching figure of the king still wandering the stage was another example of convention government, with one unhelpful twist.

The rules for the 1791 election included that nobody who had sat in the National Assembly could be elected to the Legislative Assembly. Which given the foul odor in which the monarchy rightly found itself meant supreme power was almost entirely in the hands of people with no experience in national affairs. Instead they were buffeted by events and manipulated by power brokers operating outside the formal system including one Maximilien Robespierre, who had been in the National Assembly and in fact had put forward the motion that none of its members would be eligible for the Legislative Assembly.

As events spun out of control in 1792 and the king was arrested, the Legislative Assembly decided to dissolve itself less than a year after first meeting, and summon a new National Convention. And to that body Robespierre returned to direct the increasingly ghastly Reign of Terror including as a member of the Orwellian Committee of Public Safety that was effectively the executive branch in France during the worst excesses of the Revolution. (It is because it happened under the National Convention that we call this highly unsatisfactory arrangement “convention government.)

Would all this have happened with more experienced members in the Legislative Assembly? Very possibly. The pressures that exploded in France between 1789 and 1794 had been building for a very long time, from long before the last futile pre-revolutionary summoning of the Estates-General. But with all due respect to the undesirable qualities of career politicians, there is something to be said for experience and a steady hand in turbulent waters. And it sure didn’t help that France lacked those from 1791-92.

It’s not the only reason left devoured right more or less literally in this period. But it did help set the stage for it.


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Who says I’m king?

Well, that’s nice. On September 30, 1399, Henry IV was “proclaimed” King of England. So that was that.

Well, no. And thereby hangs a happy tale.

Henry became king because people were fed up with Richard II’s feckless tyranny. And it was part of the tangled run-up to the Wars of the Roses because Edward III had been so foolish as to have five sons survive into adulthood, setting the stage for many tangled claims including those of Henry IV through his father John of Gaunt, Edward’s fourth son and third to make it to the age of majority.

Now bear with me briefly. Richard II was actually Edward III’s grandson, by his eldest son Edward the Black Prince. So when he departed the scene, first deposed on September 30 1399 and then starved to death on or around February 14, 1400, next in line might have been the son of Lionel of Antwerp, John of Gaunt’s older brother and incidentally nearly seven feet tall. But he only had a daughter, and her son Roger had died leaving a boy Edmund Mortimer as the eight-year-old easily-brushed aside heir presumptive.

The full-grown Henry looked pretty plausible instead. Especially with that big scary army standing behind him that he’d raised after Richard II recklessly and inexplicably tried to disinherit him of his father’s lands. But blood isn’t everything in England, whether running through your veins or dripping from your sword.

To be King, Henry needed… popular approval. Yes, that’s right. And not from a shouting mob. It had to come from Parliament. And when he went to Parliament to say can I be king can I huh huh I mean we all hated Richard don’t worry he won’t trouble you again, they said well, we kind of think so provided, just sort of asking, you happen to be thinking what we’re thinking which is that from now on when we present a petition to the king, that might be you, asking him to fix some injustice or another and meanwhile you keep trying to get us to give you money from the ordinary people of this realm, we’ll sort out our grievances and concerns before we talk about your cash.

What Henry’s private opinion of this proposal might have been we know not. But he had no choice. To be king he had to promise a further institutional refinement of the old promise of “No taxation without representation” contained in Clause 12 of the original 1215 Magna Carta and reaffirmed under Edward I in 1297 in De Tallagio Non Concedendo, a refinement that essentially put in place the parliamentary control of “supply” that is to this day our guarantee of accountability in the executive branch.

It wasn’t the proclamation on September 30, or the coronation on October 13, that actually made him King. It was the support of the people’s representatives, on condition that he not tax them without representation.

Which is nice.


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Wish I’d said that – September 30, 2016

“My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening. In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha – the place of skulls. This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.”

End of “Letter to my children” in Whittaker Chambers Witness.


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Render unto Frederick

Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. As Kenny Stabler used to say, “Easy to call, hard to run.” A thought prompted by the September 29 anniversary of the excommunication of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1227. Well, one of four actually.

Right away you see the problem. The Pope is meant to be holy. This other guy has “holy” in his title. And here they are hurling abuse at one another over political matters.

Of course a lot of people don’t think the Catholic Church is all that holy. Indeed quite a few hate it bitterly. And no one has improved on Voltaire’s gibe that the Holy Roman Empire was in fact none of the above. But it’s noteworthy that while this particular excommunication was formally because of Frederick’s failure to take part in the Sixth Crusade it was really about political and military disagreements over European matters.

Even a Crusade is sort of a mixed bag render-unto-Caesar-wise. It’s a war which is secular but with what were meant to be holy motives. And the Biblical injunction never meant kings should not try to defend churches, monasteries and schools against rampaging invaders; Alfred the Great certainly did exactly that and rightly so. But this whole episode was shabby and not least because the Crusades were used as a pretext.

On both sides, it seems. Frederick actually had set out for the Holy Land before becoming too ill to continue, something his enemies downplayed or denied. But he only went on the crusade because he’d managed by proxy to marry Yolande of Jerusalem and promptly had his new father-in-law John of Brienne deposed as king of Jerusalem so he could bag it. Piety was not self-evidently his main motive.

As for the Pope, his motives were essentially secular. The papacy was a major political player in those days and didn’t get along with the Holy Roman Emperors. In fact Frederick’s predecessor Otto IV had been excommunicated by Gregory’s predecessor-but-one Innocent III, the same guy who backed Bad King John against Magna Carta and the Barons (which pace Dave Barry would be a good name for a rock band). Innocent had a bit of a case, in that Otto was trying to control the church in his territories and was leading an army toward Rome. But the deeper cause was quarrels over secular papal control of various Italian polities and alliances with various rulers.

The same is true of Frederick’s issues with the Pope, who actually excommunicated him again when he did go on the Sixth Crusade in 1228, on the grounds that an excommunicated guy shouldn’t do so. There were legitimate grounds for dissatisfaction with some of his actions as a Crusader. But it is telling that by 1229 Frederick and Gregory were at war over various bits of Italy and when the excommunication was lifted in 1230 it was for political rather than moral or religious reasons.

The larger problem here is that politics is such an ugly business, so often dominated by counsels of necessity in dubious circumstances, that to start excommunicating people over policy rather than because they, say, murdered an archbishop weakens the moral authority of the act of excommunication. In 1239 Gregory excommunicated Frederick again, for invading Lombardy, which may have been both nasty and unwise but is hardly among the 7 Deadly Sins. (At one point Frederick also persuaded Gregory to excommunicate Frederick’s own son Henry on political grounds, following which he outmaneuvered Henry politically and threw him into a dungeon which seems more suitable to the situation.)

Interestingly enough Frederick does appear to have held views far outside the Catholic mainstream. Very possibly he wasn’t a Christian at all. Which I can see excommunicating him for if you are Pope. But when you only erupt into theological thunder when the guy is giving you political fits you wind up being just one more politician.

In any case Frederick went on to demand the Church give up its wealth, fail to organize a European league against politically ambitious clerics, wage more wars, get excommunicated again in 1245 and die unexpectedly in 1250. His dynasty perished soon thereafter in conflict with a papacy whose political ambitions were dragging it down into the spiral of cynical worldly maneuvering that would see Borgia and Medici Popes and the Reformation.

It would have been far better to leave politics to Caesar, surely, on practical and certainly on moral grounds.


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