The Corner

Where (Some of) Lincoln’s Words Came From . . .

Writing over at the Daily Telegraph, Dan Hannan explains:

On November 19, 1863, at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln, weak and lightheaded with an oncoming case of smallpox, made a speech that lasted for just over two minutes, and ended with his hope “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Those words have been quoted ever since as the supreme vindication of representative government. Indeed, they are often quoted as proof of American exceptionalism. But the words were not Lincoln’s. Most of his hearers would have recognised their source, as our generation typically does not. They came from the prologue to what was probably the earliest translation of the Bible into the English language: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.” The author was the theologian John Wycliffe, sometimes called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Astonishingly, they had first appeared in 1384.

Wycliffe was perhaps the most arresting figure in the medieval English church. Philosopher, temperamental rebel, and heresiarch, he anticipated many of the doctrines of Protestantism. He opposed the selling of indulgences, rejected transubstantiation, and emphasised salvation by faith. He thought that priests should be allowed to marry, and that they should be accountable before the civil courts like everyone else. He rejected papal authority in England, arguing that the nation was bound instead to its own Crown and institutions.

This last point, that England (and, by extension, any country) should be bound only by its own laws and institutions is, of course, central today to any discussion of Britain’s role within the EU, a connection that the (distinctly controversial) British politician Enoch Powell made back in 1972 with his customary erudition, when he linked the controversies of the Reformation era with those of Britain’s interminable debate over its role in Europe (the country was then considering whether to sign up for what became the EU):

The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event….

The whole subsequent history of Britain and the political character of the British people have taken their colour and trace their unique quality from that moment and that assertion. It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].

Food for thought.

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