Years ago, when I was an American student in Edinburgh, I had a long conversation about British foreign affairs with another student—an Italian—and remember finding it slightly amusing that he kept referring to the British as "your cousins." I had never thought much about the political and cultural ties binding the U.S. and Great Britain and was at the time more keenly aware of the differences between the two peoples than of their essential sameness. But as Daniel Hannan observes in "Inventing Freedom," his history of the principles and institutions that have defined English-speaking nations, non-English speakers much oftener think of the U.S. and Britain as a single entity than as two countries. When French political commentators and European Union officials complain about "Anglo-Saxon" values—liberalized labor markets, low taxes—they are coming closer to the truth than Americans and Britons typically realize.
By Daniel Hannan Broadside Books, 395 pages, $26.99
Mr. Hannan's book is more than intellectual history; it's also an argument and a plea. The principles of representative democracy, individual liberty and property rights aren't the products of some general European phenomenon called "capitalism," he says, and any belief that they are owes more to Karl Marx than to the historical record. These principles originated in pre-Norman England, were realized fully in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and spread as English speakers left the British Isles to colonize the New World, India, East Asia and Australia.
A British member of the European Parliament, Mr. Hannan believes that Continental Europeans have never valued representative government and personal liberty in the way the English have for more than a millennium. "Inventing Freedom" is, though, very far from a jingoistic tirade; the author doesn't argue that the people of non-Anglophone nations are somehow deficient in political understanding, and indeed he goes out of his way to show that patriotism in English-speaking countries has almost always based itself on principles and institutions rather than on military superiority or genetics. He contends, rather, that by a combination of historical development and geographical accident, the people of what is now called Great Britain created something entirely different from the closed and centralized regimes that have been the norm in most of human history. They produced a society where rulers were subject to the law and the law belonged to the people, where collective will did not trump individual right, and where free citizens were permitted to create and keep their own wealth. These principles have transformed the world: "The miracles of the past three and a half centuries—the unprecedented improvements in democracy, in longevity, in freedom, in literacy, in calorie intake, in infant survival rates, in height, in equality of opportunity—came about largely because of the individualist market system developed by the Anglosphere."
The author, though, is worried. By aligning its laws and policies increasingly with the Continent rather than the U.S. and the other Anglophone democracies to which it gave birth, he fears, Britain may be abandoning the principles that brought political freedom to the world. Recent political developments on this side of the Atlantic suggest a similar course for the U.S. Yet none of this takes away from the sunny winsomeness of Mr. Hannan's writing or the book's narrative drive (the first chapter begins with the words, "When I was four years old, a mob attacked our family farm").
Mr. Hannan has engaged with a wide array of important academic historical works, among them James Campbell's "The Anglo-Saxon State" (2003) and the Cambridge historian Alan Macfarlane's groundbreaking "The Origins of English Individualism" (1978) and "The Culture of Capitalism" (1987). The book's chapters cover medieval and early modern England, move to what the author calls the First and Second Anglosphere Wars—the struggle between king and Parliament in the 1650s and the comparatively humane war over American independence in the 1770s and '80s—and finally tell the story of how the British Empire transformed itself into a loosely connected Commonwealth and, later, a global alliance of nations united primarily by values rather than formal agreements. That the book contains no bibliography or proper citations is irritating, but the decision to give it a tract-like feel is defensible.
The story begins in the 10th century, when the Saxons were living in an England that, in a primitive but no less real way, valued law over force. These were litigious people, always bringing disputes before magistrates and demanding adjudication. It was among the Saxons that English common law was born. The common law—the form of law used throughout most of the Anglosphere even now—was based on the premise that judges should decide cases, not by applying an abstract principle of law to specific situations, but by determining how cases had been decided in similar situations before.
This bottom-up form of jurisprudence in effect put the law itself in charge; judges didn't so much "decide" cases as discern how they'd been decided already. The common law, Mr. Hannan argues, contrasting as it did with the more top-down Continental traditions, has had profound effects on the way English speakers think about the world. "The pragmatic nature of the Anglosphere peoples," he writes, "their dislike of purely theoretical reasoning, was built from the first into the way they made—or, rather, discovered—their laws."
By the early 11th century, the Saxon form of government was already premised on the belief that kings couldn't do whatever they pleased. In 1013, a Danish invasion had driven the Saxon king Aethelred into exile and placed a Dane, Sweyn, on the throne. When Sweyn died unexpectedly the next year, the Saxon ruling assembly, the Witan, invited Aethelred to return—on condition that he refrain from imposing excessive taxes and heed the Witan's counsel. And when Aethelred died two years later, the same offer was extended to the Danish king Cnut. The Saxons were devastated by the Normans in 1066, and so were all their traditions of law. But the Saxons' political worldview survived in regional and municipal assemblies. That worldview would be given its most sublime expression in 1215, when the egregious King John was forced to sign the charter that circumscribed monarchical power and dealt a death blow to absolutism in the Anglosphere—the Magna Carta.
The book's strongest chapter asks us to rethink the narrative of European economic history that scholars have for the most part uncritically accepted for generations. During the late Middle Ages, the story goes, European society was based on the shared ownership of land. Boys were expected, in effect forced, to remain on that land and practice their father's trade. Only with the rise of "capitalism" in the 16th century—i.e., the freer movement of labor and wealth—was the system fractured. That narrative, says Mr. Hannan, describes just about everywhere in Europe except England. Long before the 16th century, English law had considered boys free agents the moment they reached legal maturity. Once he left home, a young Englishman could join whatever trade he wished.
English law, too, allowed a man to leave his property to whomever he pleased, whereas Continental laws required a more equitable distribution to all family members—a difference that still exists. Long before the rise of industrialism in the 18th century, then, English society reflected a view of individual rights and economic mobility that was largely absent on the Continent.
The Glorious Revolution was the next pivotal event. By inviting the Protestant William of Orange to invade in 1688 and chase the Catholic James II from the throne, England's political leaders created a nation in which state power was limited by the will of Parliament. Mr. Hannan records a beautiful moment when seven Anglican bishops, having been consigned by James II to the Tower of London for refusing to pronounce a royal edict in their churches, were cheered by vast crowds as they made their way to prison. As they entered the tower, the guards, ostensibly working for the king, knelt for a blessing. In England, the doctrine of the divine right of kings was truly dead.
Mr. Hannan goes to great lengths to emphasize the ways in which the American Founders drew on the documents of English libertarianism (that's his term for it). It's more than just a debt of language, although the language is suggestive: The Magna Carta forbade taxation without representation, for example, and England's 1689 Bill of Rights maintained that "excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
The observation has often been made, but it bears repeating: The Founders didn't consider themselves revolutionaries; they considered themselves Englishmen who had been denied the right to govern themselves by an arrogant monarch enabled by a misguided Parliament. "The Grand Union Flag was the banner that the Continental Congress met under," Mr. Hannan writes, "the banner that flew over their chamber when they approved the Declaration of Independence. It was the banner that George Washington fought beneath, that John Paul Jones hoisted on the first ship of the United States Navy. That it has been almost excised from America's collective memory tells us a great deal about how the story of the revolution was afterward edited."
The point here isn't merely academic. The U.S. and Britain together midwifed political freedom into the modern world, and their vibrant economies and political stability have ratified their principles. Mr. Hannan rightly notes that representative democracy and individual rights have never been popular around the world. In 1688, the absolutism personified by Louis XIV was the wave of the future, and in the 1930s the idea of democratic rule was laughed at by sophisticated people all over the globe and particularly on the Continent. At both moments, it was the Anglosphere's task to defend the ideals of individual freedom and self-governance against their enemies. And on both occasions the task was fulfilled more or less successfully.
How unfortunate, then, that at a time when Anglosphere nations have begun to coalesce around shared values—Mr. Hannan argues that Ireland and perhaps even India are now full-fledged members of the Anglosphere—the U.S. president should defenestrate those values and embrace statism and centralization instead. As if to reinforce his rejection of Anglosphere principles, Barack Obama has pointedly downgraded the long-standing special relationship existing between Britain and the U.S. Mr. Obama's straining of these ties is typical of the left's reluctance to champion the Anglosphere's political heritage. This, even though, over the past century, English-speaking nations have defended and fostered precisely the values that left-liberals claim to cherish and even as the regimes the left has too often defended—from Soviet Russia to the Palestinian Authority—have spurned those values in all but rhetoric.
But there is another fundamental antagonism at work here, and it has to do with the Anglosphere's religious inheritance. "Protestantism," writes Mr. Hannan, drawing on Linda Colley's marvelous history of British identity, "Britons" (1992), "was the single biggest factor in the forging of a common British nationality out of the older English, Scottish, and Welsh identities—a common nationality then transmitted to the settler societies." That's undeniable. The Protestant worldview, with its emphasis on individual conscience and personal Bible-reading and its elevation of industry, facilitated the rise of Northern and Western Europe's mercantile culture as nothing else did. But even the loosest forms of Protestantism, and indeed all forms of Christianity, necessarily imply a metaphysical source of authority, and radical ideologies from the mid-19th century forward have usually defined themselves in opposition to all forms of spiritual authority. Church attendance may have hit rock bottom throughout much of the Anglosphere today, but the history and present habits of these nations, as Mr. Hannan is right to observe, are still soaked in an essentially religious outlook.
Whether the "Protestant ethic" can survive the recession of Protestantism is another question altogether. Mr. Hannan sounds upbeat: "While Protestantism might have been an important component in establishing the Anglosphere's political culture, that political culture quickly took on a durability and energy that allowed it to flourish from Ireland to Singapore." True enough. But the habits of thought instilled by a century of welfare-state entitlements and big-government cronyism have gradually and quietly undermined the older outlook, based as it was on the dignity of work and individual attainment. It's far from clear to me, anyhow, that a post-Protestant work ethic animated solely by material gain can compete with an ethic of handouts and bailouts.
But Mr. Hannan shouldn't be faulted for his optimism—particularly given the gravity of his book's central argument: that the survival of democratic self-governance, individual rights and economic freedom depends largely on the choices made today by the world's English-speaking cousins.
—Mr. Swaim is writing a book about political language and public life.