Ancient Constitutions — Politics and the Past



In the past people thought differently. The point is a deceptively obvious one. It is always tempting to interpret ideas from the past in ways that make them more like our own than they really were. No matter how frequently we remind ourselves of the differences between the past and the present, our very habits of mind encourage us to abridge them. The study of past ideas must always be in part a process of defamiliarization. In early-seventeenth century England there were two common ways of legitimating the political rules and arrangements of the present,1 and both of them are liable to look bizarre to modem eyes. One of these ways involved the employment of the concept of custom, the other the concept of grace. Things were legitimate either because they were customary, or because they were the product of God’s grace. In the hyper-rationalistic twentieth century neither of these justifications seems particularly persuasive, and a considerable degree of effort is required for us to rethink the thoughts of people for whom these concepts were of such legitimating power.


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  1. 1.
    J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Movement: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975), chpt. X.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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    It should be recognised that Pocock was not without a precursor in this: Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and his History (Cambridge, 1944). Cf. Pocock, Ancient Constitution pp. vii-ix, xi, xiv.Google Scholar
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    Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 2 vols, 1978), vol. II, p. 310. See also Ralph Giesey, ‘When and Why Hotman wrote the Francogallia’, Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance vol. 29 (1967), pp. 581–611Google Scholar
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  46. 44.
    Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 69–93Google Scholar
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  48. 45.
    See the English translation by Thomas Woods, A Treatise of the Antiquity of the Commonwealth of the Battavers (1649).Google Scholar
  49. 46.
    Ibid., pp. 145–9. For the context see W. S. M. Knight, The Life and Works of Hugo Grotius (London, 1925), pp. 121–5Google Scholar
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  51. 48.
    I am dependent here on Martyn P. Thompson, ‘The History of Fundamental Law in Political Thought from the French wars of Religion to the American Revolution’, American Historical Review vol. 91 (1986), pp. 1121ff. (esp. 1123). This article has been of general use in understanding the background to English ancient constitutionalism; see also Harro Höpfl & Martyn P. Thompson, ‘The History of Contract as a Motif in Political Thought’, American Historical Review vol. 84 (1979), pp. 919–44.Google Scholar

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© Glenn Burgess 1992

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