The Influence of English History Upon the American Founding: The Reign of Alfred the Great

Delving deeper into English history, it is clear that there is a necessity to contextualize the significance of the American revolution within the institutional innovations of past peoples.  In this way, we can appreciate the tumultuous heritage that gave birth to many of the Founders’ ideas and more fully comprehend the historical difficulties the Constitution was intended to allay.

One institutional innovator was the ninth century English king Alfred the Great. Being an anomaly that one of my two middle names is Alfred, I long considered it a bit of baggage that one of my namesakes had such a disconsonant appendage. It turns out that Alfred is a great figure in English lore, and bearing such a horrible sounding name was not distinctly uncommon in his place and era.

The principle texts utilized in my survey exploration of English history have been David Hume’s The History of England, and Lord Maculay’s The History of England from the Accession of James II. Though I trust the judgment of Macaulay a bit more, both are skeptical and astute narrators.

The following sections on Alfred the Great are pulled from Hume’s work. Hume’s comment on the relevance of Saxon institutions appears to be influenced by Tacitus, whose glowing appraisal of the democratic inclination of the Germanic tribes appears to be grossly overstated. The Germanic peoples in the main were barbaric, uncouth savages whose nods to the formal procedures of democracy say as much about the system of government as it does them.  Alfred the Great shows more shrewdness by dividing powers among the civil and military institutions, and integrating the body of the jury into the civil administration of justice.

First a brief biography:

Alfred 871. This prince gave very early marks of those great virtues and shining talents, by which, during the most difficult times, he saved his country from utter ruin and subversion. […] His genius was first roused by the recital of Saxon poems, in which the queen took delight; and this species of erudition, which is sometimes able to make a considerable progress even among barbarians, expanded those noble and elevated sentiments which he had received from nature. Encouraged by the queen, and stimulated by his own ardent inclination, he soon learned to read those compositions; and proceeded thence to acquire the knowledge of the Latin tongue, in which he met with authors that better prompted his heroic spirit, and directed his generous views. Absorbed in these elegant pursuits, he regarded his accession to royalty rather as an object of regret than of triumph; but being called to the throne, in preference to his brothers children, as well by the will of his father, a circumstance which had great authority with the Anglo-Saxons, as by the vows of the whole nation, and the urgency of public affairs, he shook off his literary indolence, and exerted himself in the defence of his people. He had scarcely buried his brother, when he was obliged to take the field in order to oppose the Danes, who…were exercising their usual ravages on the countries around.

The Danes were the unquestioned scourge of northern Europe in Alfred’s day. Successfully opposing the invading hordes would require scrapping together the ruins of the island, the dilapidated fortifications, the demoralized people, and the crumbling infrastructure. Internecine wars between the rulers of the “Heptarchy,” the seven kingdoms of medieval England, had not prepared the inhabitants for the Danish invaders; it had rather exhausted them and led them to a series of treacherous revenges and outrages against one another. Such was the case that when the Danish invaded, each kingdom’s ruler was loathe to provide assistance to the other, for fear he would be exposed to future ravages from the piratical menaces.

Through studied and even deceptive practices of warfare, Alfred was able to personally lead the English to victories against the Danish, who were unused to shrewd and vigorous opposition.  The king thus combined in his person the man of intelligence and action so necessary to attaining political victory.  In the course of fifty-six land and sea battles, Alfred was able to give the English some peace, in which time he was able to reorganize the island for more organized civil and military defense.

Among the institutions Alfred implemented or modified:

The king employed this interval of tranquillity in restoring order to the state, which had been shaken by so many violent convulsions; in establishing civil and military institutions; in composing the minds of men to industry and justice; and in providing against the return of like calamities. He was, more properly than his grandfather, Egbert, the sole monarch of the English, (for so the Saxons were now universally called,) because the kingdom of Mercia was at last incorporated in his state, and was governed by Ethelbert, his brother- in-law, who bore the title of Earl: and though the Danes, who peopled East Anglia and Northumberland, were for some time ruled immediately by their own princes, they all acknowledged a subordination to Alfred, and submitted to his superior authority. As equality among subjects is the great source of concord, Alfred gave the same laws [note] to the Danes and English, and put them entirely on a like footing in the administration both of civil and criminal justice. The fine for the murder of a Dane was the same with that for the murder of an Englishman; the great symbol of equality in those ages.

The king, after rebuilding the ruined cities, particularly London, which had been destroyed by the Danes in the reign of Ethelwolf, established a regular militia for the defence of the kingdom. He ordained that all his people should be armed and registered; he assigned them a regular rotation of duty; he distributed part into the castles and fortresses which he built at proper places; he required another part to take the field on any alarm, and to assemble at stated places of rendezvous; and he left a sufficient number at home, who were employed in the cultivation of the land, and who afterwards took their turn in military service. The whole kingdom was like one great garrison; and the Danes could no sooner appear in one place, than a sufficient number was assembled to oppose them, without leaving the other quarters defenceless or disarmed.

But Alfred, sensible that the proper method of opposing an enemy who made incursions by sea, was to meet them on their own element, took care to provide himself with a naval force, which though the most natural defence of an island, had hitherto been totally neglected by the English. He increased the shipping of his kingdom both in number and strength, and trained his subjects in the practice, as well of sailing as of naval action. He distributed his armed vessels in proper stations around the island, and was sure to meet the Danish ships either before or after they had landed their troops, and to pursue them in all their incursions. Though the Danes might suddenly, by surprise, disembark on the coast, which was generally become desolate by their frequent ravages, they were encountered by the English fleet in their retreat; and escaped not, as formerly, by abandoning their booty, but paid, by their total destruction, the penalty of the disorders which they had committed.

It is important to note that historical, geographical, and martial exigencies often shape the long-term institutions and character of a people, for right or for wrong. It is not that this qualification makes political principles relative, but rather that there are varied difficulties in maintaining individual rights in sundry circumstances.

But these establishments that Alfred accomplished are not the signature institutions that the Founders inherited from his reign. They are well-understood necessities for the survival of a state in an anarchic world. More notable are his contributions to the development of English civil institutions, even as they are not always perfectly suitable to modern adaption:

After Alfred had subdued, and had settled or expelled the Danes, he found the kingdom in the most wretched condition; desolated by the ravages of those barbarians, and thrown into disorders, which were calculated to perpetuate its misery. Though the great armies of the Danes were broken, the country was full of straggling troops of that nation, who, being accustomed to live by plunder, were become incapable of industry, and who, from the natural ferocity of their manners, indulged themselves in committing violence, even beyond what was requisite to supply their necessities. The English themselves, reduced to the most extreme indigence by these continued depredations, had shaken off all bands of government; and those who had been plundered today, betook themselves next day to a like disorderly life, and, from despair, joined the robbers in pillaging and ruining their fellow-citizens. These were the evils for which it was necessary that the vigilance and activity of Alfred should provide a remedy.

That he might render the execution of justice strict and regular; he divided all England into counties; these counties he subdivided into hundreds; and, the hundreds into tithings. Every householder was answerable for the behaviour of his family and slaves, and even of his guests, if they lived above three days in his house. Ten neighbouring householders were formed into one corporation, who, under the name of a tithing, decennary, or fribourg, were answerable for each others conduct, and over whom one person, called a tithingman, headbourg, or borsholder, was appointed to preside. Every man was punished as an outlaw who did not register himself in some tithing. And no man could change his habitation, without a warrant or certificate from the borsholder of the tithing to which he formerly belonged. […]

Such a regular distribution of the people, with such a strict confinement in their habitation, may not be necessary in times when men are more inured to obedience and justice; and it might perhaps be regarded as destructive of liberty and commerce in a polished state; but it was well calculated to reduce that fierce and licentious people under the salutary restraint of law and government. But Alfred took care to temper these rigours by other institutions favourable to the freedom of the citizens; and nothing could be more popular and liberal than his plan for the administration of justice. […] Their method of decision deserves to be noted, as being the origin of juries; an institution admirable in itself, and the best calculated for the preservation of liberty and the administration of justice that ever was devised by the wit of man. Twelve freeholders were chosen, who, having sworn, together with the hundreder, or presiding magistrate of that division, to administer impartial justice, proceeded to the examination of that cause which was submitted to their jurisdiction. […] The people, in imitation of their ancestors, the ancient Germans, assembled there in arms; whence a hundred was sometimes called a wapentake, and its court served both for the support of military discipline, and for the administration of civil justice. […]

The better to guide the magistrates in the administration of justice, Alfred framed a body of laws; which, though now lost, served long as the basis of English jurisprudence, and is generally deemed the origin of what is denominated the COMMON LAW. He appointed regular meetings of the states of England twice a year in London; a city which he himself had repaired and beautified, and which he thus rendered the capital of the kingdom. The similarity of these institutions to the customs of the ancient Germans, to the practice of the other northern conquerors, and to the Saxon laws during the Heptarchy, prevents us from regarding Alfred as the sole author of this plan of government; and leads us rather to think, that, like a wise man, he contented himself with reforming, extending, and executing the institutions which he found previously established. But, on the whole, such success attended his legislation, that every thing bore suddenly a new face in England: robberies and iniquities of all kinds were repressed by the punishment or reformation of the criminals: and so exact was the general police, that Alfred, it is said, hung up, by way of bravado, golden bracelets near the highways; and no man dared to touch them. Yet, amidst these rigours of justice, this great prince preserved the most sacred regard to the liberty of his people; and it is a memorable sentiment preserved in his will, That it was just the English should for ever remain as free as their own thought.

We can see the influence of Alfred the Great in the form of the American legal institutions of bail and the executive pardon, the division of the country into counties, and the Fifth Amendment to The Constitution.


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