The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America

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The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America by Lee Ward Cambridge University Press * 2004 * 459 pages * $90

Explaining and, worse, legitimizing the state occupied sixteenth- and seventeenth-century philosophers in England and Europe. Even as the beast they dissected exiled or imprisoned them and ravaged their countries with civil war, they worried about the intricacies of absolute monarchy. How exactly did God ordain it, and do men owe obligations beyond abject submission to their king? Is a monarchy not only absolute but unified, or does the sovereign share his power with "lesser magistrates"? If the latter, does the king's authority move with him from palace to Parliament, so that his partners in crime bask in the reflected glow? Is there room for contractual relations between a sovereign and his subjects? And is that contract voided when the sovereign becomes tyrannical? Is it even possible for a sovereign to be tyrannical? After all, if law proceeds from the sovereign and is to be obeyed rather than questioned, how can we mere mortals call some dictates just and others, well, dictatorial?

Not only did these policy-wonk questions intrigue pundits, they inspired such events in British history as the Long Parliament, the Puritan Revolution, the Commonwealth, and so on. In The Politics of Liberty, Professor Lee Ward, who teaches political science at Campion College, University of Regina (Canada), correlates his philosophical history to the political one and coincidentally proves how very much ideas really matter. He traces the development of thought, repellant though it is, on the extent and morality of the state's authority from Sir Robert Filmer, Hugo Grotius, and Thomas Hobbes through Samuel Pufendorf and such Whig philosophers as James Tyrrell, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and Cato (that is, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, authors of Cato's Letters). His book concludes with the transformation of these ideas by James Otis, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and other Americans.

And thank heaven they were transformed. Filmer argues unabashedly that the monarch is sovereign. Indeed, his king sits so far above the law that the royal nostrils may bleed. Filmer credits the biblical account of Adam's creation for this. Supposedly, when God gave Adam dominion over the earth (Gen 1: 28-29), Adam became a literal and utter dictator.

Never mind that the context of these verses is dominion over the natural world, not the political one. …