Muldoon on "The Roots of Democratic Self-Government"

Randall Stephens

In the latest issue of Historically Speaking (April 2012) James Muldoon considers the "Roots of Democratic Self-Government." It's a timely essay. "The Arab Spring is warming the seeds of democracy that exist in all societies but have remained latent until now" he writes. Muldoon goes on to ask, "If democracy is such a natural phenomenon, what happened to frustrate the democratic expectations of these new societies?" In part he finds the answer in a now somewhat obscure book by Albert Beebe White (1871-1952), "who taught English history at the University of Minnesota for many years." Continues Muldoon:

Near the end of his career he published Self-Government at the King’s Command: A Study in the Beginnings of English Democracy (University of Minnesota Press, 1933), a reflection on lessons he learned from his study of English constitutional development. The most important lesson he learned was that, as the title of his book states, self-government and democracy did not emerge from popular demand. “If the title of this study appears to be a paradox, it is because our thinking is still generally ruled by the notion that wherever self-government has arisen it has been because people have wished to rule themselves and have striven successfully to this end." . . . 

In stressing the role of the Norman and Angevin monarchs of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries in the creation of English self-government, White was attacking the once popular belief that the English were inherently inclined to democracy, the so-called germ theory of constitutional development associated with Herbert Baxter Adams. 

Why did English kings require the services of their subjects instead of employing full-time paid officials? White suggests that the kings dis- trusted full-time officials such as sheriffs, so they required their subjects to do many tasks performed elsewhere by officials in order to limit the power of the sheriff. It was also cheaper than hiring officials because the services were unpaid and seen as the obligation of the subject. 

The fundamental vehicle for involving the subjects in their own governance was the jury, not the modern trial jury that retains only some elements of its origin but the jury composed of local men brought together to resolve a wide range of problems, criminal and civil. Such juries existed at various levels and called upon a wide range of individuals. There were juries of peasants at the manorial level and juries drawn from the ranks of larger landowners for courts at the county level. . . .

The rest will soon be posted at Project Muse.