The latest Outrage of the Day is Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking before the National Sheriffs’ Association and referring to “the Anglo-American heritage of law-enforcement.” This is a hideous racist statement—if you have been educated extensively in how to seek out offense but have learned next to nothing about history.
We do in fact have an Anglo-American system of law in this country, in the literal sense of being derived from English law. “Anglo-American law” is a widely accepted alternative term for the common law tradition that came to America with English settlers and formed the basis for our judicial system. Part of that tradition is the office of sheriff—originally a “shire reeve,” an Anglo-Saxon office that predates the Norman Conquest.
This is unique to England and former English colonies, and it is considered a bulwark of liberty, since it puts law enforcement in the hands of an independent local official, rather than concentrating it in a central power. As Sessions explained, “Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people.”
But a series of online scolds, from noted legal scholar Alyssa Milano all the way up to the NAACP, declared this was really a “dog whistle” meant to convey Sessions’ loyalty to white nationalism. To an awful lot of people, the prefix “Anglo-” does not mean “pertaining to England” but is just a shorthand for “white.” I am certain these people also believe they are totally above simplistic racial stereotyping.
What is most disturbing about this is not merely its ignorance of language and history. It is the assumption that America’s English cultural heritage is inherently racially exclusive. I can’t imagine a more condescending assumption, as if people of other races are somehow unable to grasp the concepts of habeas corpus and “innocent until proven guilty.” This kind of racial separatism—these are the same people who rail against “cultural appropriation”—is becoming the new orthodoxy among those who posture as “progressive.” But trying to make our English common law heritage seem racially exclusive is not an answer to white nationalists. It’s an echo of them.
America is a racially and ethnically diverse nation that has been built on the common understanding and acceptance of precisely this English heritage. English ideas and customs have been embraced, not just by people of English descent, but by my Irish and Polish ancestors—back when they were still considered a separate ethnicity—and every successive wave of immigrants from every region of the world. The NAACP, back when it employed real lawyers, relied extensively on the Anglo-American legal tradition when arguing for the protections of civil rights in the courts.
Our common Anglo-American heritage goes well beyond sheriffs. It includes such Anglo-American traditions as habeas corpus, trial by jury, and our use of the English tradition of common law, which enshrined the concepts of due process and certain basic rights.
Then there is our political system, which incorporated ideas from the Magna Carta up through the upheavals of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1689, which introduced important ideas about the separation of powers, the relationship between the legislature and executive, the need for a bill of rights, and the conditions under which the people can remove an unfit leader from the highest office in the land. (You want to appeal to that idea? Then thank our Anglo-American heritage.)
To justify and explain the principles of the 1689 revolution, the English philosopher John Locke wrote his “Two Treatises of Government,” whose ideas Thomas Jefferson brilliantly summed up in our nation’s founding document. One of the great ironies of the American Revolution was that our founders crusaded for independence from Britain by appealing to “the rights of Englishmen.”
Of course, it’s not just law and politics. Anyone who speaks English owes a debt to William Shakespeare and probably uses words and phrases he invented. (It’s not just us, either. Shakespeare is the world’s most translated author.) We are “two people separated by a common language,” so we have been constantly influenced by English and British culture from Winston Churchill to Monty Python.
English influences are not the be-all and end-all of American culture (though “be-all and end-all” is a another phrase we got from Shakespeare). We have incorporated many other influences, customs, and ideas. But we still live in a country suffused with Anglo-American heritage, and that’s a good thing, because this is a background rich in intellectual and artistic achievement, and it has proven to be the system most conducive to liberty and prosperity.
Anglo-American law is a blueprint for the whole world, and it has long been relied upon by people of many races and origins. It is both an English heritage and the common heritage of mankind. We should celebrate that heritage and learn more about it, rather than closing our minds to it because many of the people who gave it to us were of the wrong race. That’s the only truly progressive thing to do.
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