Book Summary: “Inventing Freedom: How the English… Made the Modern World” by Daniel Hannan

Title: Inventing Freedom: How the English Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World
Author: Daniel Hannan
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system

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Topic of Book

Hannan overviews English history and shows how they invented individual rights, private property, the rule of law and representative government.

If you would like to learn more about how the modern world was created, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • The English were very early to form a nation. By 1000, England was already evolving towards a unified nation with rule of law.
  • England, unlike the rest of Europe, did not have a semi-independent hereditary aristocracy that was exempt from royal authority. All were bound by the law.
  • Law was made not by local aristocrats, but by the King’s court. This created peace and stability, which evolved into property rights.
  • Disputes were settled, not by war as on the Continent, but by a legal system.
  • The Norman invasion of 1066 almost destroyed the rule of law, and it took six centuries to undo the damage caused by this invasion from the Continent.
  • In 1205 the signing of the Magna Carta established the power of an elected House of Commons to balance royal authority.
  • On the Continent kings were only constrained by the military power of aristocrats.
  • England in the 13th century was an open, mobile, market-oriented and highly centralized nation, different from the peasantries of Europe and Asia.
  • This society was guaranteed by two connected legal features: primogeniture and the total ownership of land by a single person.
  • American colonists borrowed British political values and institutions and intensified them

Important Quotes from Book

“Yet the English had, on almost any definition, formed an independent and unitary nation-state by the tenth century. No other European country came close. Denmark, arguably the second, coalesced between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Iceland, colonized from the eleventh century and also separated by sea from its neighbors, was another early outlier. A case can perhaps be made for Portugal, which showed signs of national consciousness from the twelfth century onward. Most European nation-states, however, emerged in the age of muskets rather than that of battle-axes.”

“This unique development made possible the other peculiar characteristics of early England. There was not, as in most of Europe, a semi-independent hereditary aristocracy. The law was applied nationally by the King’s courts, not locally by territorial magnates (except possibly in the extreme north, where the evidence is patchy). Instead of running semi-autonomous dukedoms, powerful men would meet in a national council, which was in time to develop into a national parliament. Unity, combined with island geography, meant internal order”

“England’s relative stability gave its inhabitants security in the tenure of their property. Because the state’s authority was undisputed, and the regime unlikely to be overthrown, men were commensurately ready to take their disputes to court instead of settling them by force. A unique legal system grew up, based on precedent rather than statute”

“But the great men never constituted a hereditary caste with legal privileges—such as, to cite the most notorious example from Europe, exemption from taxation. They were as subject to the law of the land as anyone else.”

“Almost a third of the human race now lives, wholly or partly, under a common-law system. Along with the English language, the common law is the main unifier of the Anglosphere.”

“Courts were dispersed and local”

“In 1014, something almost miraculous took place… What happened next was, at that time, without precedent in the world. The Witan offered Æthelred the chance to return to his throne only if he agreed to abide by their conditions. Specifically, there were to be no more excessive taxes. The old laws—the first appearance of that English notion of “immemorial custom” or “the good old laws”—must be upheld. And the King must pledge to be guided by the counsel of the Witan in future.”

“Tenth-century England had undeniably started down the track to constitutional liberty. What might have happened had it continued on that path we’ll never know, because, in 1066, it was brutally wrenched out of the Nordic world and subjected to European feudalism…. It was a calamitous defeat for England, for the Witan, and for the development of liberty. Indeed, the next six centuries can be seen in one sense—and were seen by many of the key protagonists—as an attempt to reverse the disaster of 1066.”

“The Witan gave way to a council of Norman barons, whose chief function was to aggrandize and glorify the monarch. Any notion of an assembly speaking for the wider nation—let alone being able to approve kings or impose terms on them—was lost. But, under the surface, in shire and hundredal courts, the practical, case-by-case accretion of common law continued. Eventually, during the reign of Henry II, the common law was given a national character, and its elements—including jury trials—were recognized by the central state.”

“English exceptionalism was defined with reference, not to racial characteristics, military prowess, or island geography, but to law, liberty, and representative institutions.

The defining moment for the barons came in 1204, when the king of France annexed Normandy, absorbing the ducal lands into his crown estate. No longer could the English upper classes think of themselves as part of a cross-Channel aristocracy. Though their speech, their music, their verse, and their dress remained French in inspiration, their political orientation shifted.”

“On June 15, 1215, in a field near Windsor, an event of truly planetary significance took place. For the first time, the idea that governments were subject to the law took written, contractual form. The king put his seal to a document that, from that day to this, has been seen as the foundational charter of Anglosphere liberty: Magna Carta.”

“In the Anglosphere, rights were traditionally bound up with representative institutions”

“Having defeated the Royalist armies, and captured the Prince of Wales (the future Edward I), de Montfort summoned a parliament to meet at Westminster Hall in 1265.

Historians have traditionally treated that assembly as the first session of the parliament that, to this day, meets on the same spot. What distinguished de Montfort’s parliament from previous assemblies was that he invited every shire to send two “prudent and law-worthy” knights, and major towns to send two burgesses. Extraordinarily—and uniquely in Europe at that time—he asked that these representatives be directly elected, and as far as we can tell, the vote was open to every freeholder:”

“Nonetheless, Simon de Montfort can justly be considered the father of Parliament. If the House of Lords was born at Runnymede, the House of Commons was born half a century later when he called the elected knights and burgesses to Westminster… And the essential functions of the House of Commons—approving officeholders, debating policy, and, above all, controlling the purse strings—have continued more or less uninterrupted for nearly eight centuries.”

“What is peculiar to the English Parliament, which later became the Parliament of Great Britain and, later still, that of the United Kingdom, is the legitimacy and authority it was accorded. The country’s great constitutional upheavals—the wars of John and Henry III, the depositions of Edward II and Richard II, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Acts of Union—were experienced as parliamentary events.”

“Parliament was more than a place where representatives met to determine affairs of state. It was the supreme guarantor of the rule of law, the last defense of personal liberty, the chief exemplar of national exceptionalism.”

“After the fall of Rome, we can see these ideas given expression in various Germanic kingdoms. There were councils and assemblies throughout Europe, their function as much judicial as legislative, in the sense that they adjudicated disputes as well as approving law codes.

 “Across the West, this tradition died out between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Kings and nobles did what rulers in every age and nation do: they used coercive force to rig the rules in favor of themselves and their descendants. The aristocracy became, legally, a separate caste, with unique privileges. The great landowners had almost arbitrary power on their estates. The kings were constrained, not by the law, but by the balance among their great magnates. Outside the towns, feudalism, serfdom, and inherited status were the norm.

Common law and popular assemblies survived only in a few parts of the Nordic world and, outstandingly, in England. What made England exceptional was its early development as a nation-state. This development, in turn, owed a great deal to geography. England was not exactly an island but, by the tenth century, it was overwhelmingly the preponderant state on the island of Great Britain, and Welsh and Scottish princes periodically did homage at the English court. Clear borders, a united national church, a single language, and a sense of common identity created what we would now call civic society.”

“England back to the thirteenth century was not based on either ‘Community’ or ‘communities.’ It appears to have been an open, mobile, market-oriented and highly centralized nation, different not merely in degree but in kind from the peasantries of Europe and Asia.”

“The individualistic character of English society was guaranteed by two connected legal features: primogeniture and the total ownership of land by a single person.”

“Neither primogeniture nor outright ownership is compatible with a peasant society on the Continental model. Both are products of the bottom-up common-law system. Together, at a physical as well as a political level, these two precepts shaped the Anglosphere.”

“Yet, while it lasted, the practice of primogeniture had vast social consequences. In Britain, unlike in Europe, the nobility never became a closed class. Younger sons of landowners “would have to make their way in the world as soldiers or doctors or clergymen or businessmen. In most of Europe, where nobility was an inherited legal status, the aristocracy could comprise a substantial proportion of the population: as much 30 percent in some countries. In Britain, their numbers were always tiny.”

“A consequence was to make Britain a country with unusually high social mobility”

“one of the more striking aspects of national identity in the Anglosphere, namely the rejection of patriotism by the left. In most of Europe, the national cause was a popular and democratic one. But in the Anglosphere it became entangled with questions of supporting the underdog and establishing hierarchies of victimhood. It is rarely easy to portray either Britain or the United States as an underdog. It is especially hard to think of England this way”

“It is often said that the United States is unique in being a propositional nation. Yet this characteristic did not develop in a vacuum. Long before the Declaration of Independence, Britons on both sides of the Atlantic had taken pride in the idea that theirs was a creedal rather than an ethnic identity… It was as a newly united, multiethnic state that the British built their empire.”

“What catalyzed the shift from status to contract? What were the magic ingredients? In recounting our story so far, we have identified them. They are five in number.

First, the development of a nation-state: that is, a regime able to apply laws more or less uniformly to a population bound together by a sense of shared identity.

Second, and related to the fact of common nationality, a strong civic society: ”

Third, island geography… “The Anglosphere is an essentially maritime civilization.”

“Fourth, religious pluralism in a Protestant context, ”

“Fifth, and most important, the common law.

“In other words, the American colonists had not just borrowed British political values and institutions; they had intensified them. Tocqueville believed that, just as French America had exaggerated the authoritarianism and seigneurialism of Louis XIV’s France, and Spanish America the ramshackle corruption of Philip IV’s Spain, so English America (as he called it) had exaggerated the libertarian character of the mother civilization.”

  1. “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” by Arthur Herman
  2. “Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld” by James Belich
  3. “Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History” by Ian Morris
  4. “Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity” by Walter Scheidel
  5. “Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850” by Joel Mokyr
  6. The WIERDest People in the World” by Joseph Henrich
  7. “A Culture of Growth” by Joel Mokyr
  8. “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World” by Deirdre McCloskey
  9. “The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created” by William J. Bernstein
  10. “Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World” by Deirdre McCloskey
  11. “Why Europe?: The Rise of the West…” by Jack Goldstone
  12. “Why did Europe Conquer the World?” by Philip Hoffman

If you would like to learn more about how the modern world was created, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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