In the year 1215, at a place called Runnymede, the barons of England, having paused from their usual pastime of bickering with one another, allied themselves with another brotherhood, the bishops of the Church, to checkmate their own king. They compelled him to sign a document called Magna Carta. Schoolchildren used to learn the story with a Whig spin. John had to recognize that the king was not above the law. He could not do to the noblemen whatever he pleased. He could not seize their land for debt when they could pay in money or chattels, nor imprison them at will, nor raise their taxes without consulting them. Eventually, these civil rights would filter down to the peasants, and we would have liberal democracy, and shopping malls, and every tear would be wiped away.
What’s easy for us to forget is that the barons were not early liberals but conservatives. They were moved by no theory of government, no early version of the French Revolution’s Rights of Man. They were resisting a centralizing of power and the theft of their “ancient liberties and customs,” meaning the local right of self-government and the raising of duties. By signing Magna Carta, the king conceded that there were many centers of authority besides his own, from that of his enemy the belligerent duke down to that of the free man in his home.
These other centers of authority were embedded in a history of their own that rightly commanded reverence. Therefore the right of inheritance is the most jealously guarded liberty in Magna Carta. You may not pillage a man’s castle simply because he happens to have died. We mistake the matter entirely if we consider such a right only in terms of wealth retained. The right of inheritance allowed a family the same kind of being extending through the centuries that the nation enjoyed. It honored the family as not merely a biological happenstance within the state but as a metaphysical and political reality that preceded the state.
In the Middle Ages, such independent authorities were established by formal charters, deeds recognizing zones of autonomy. Every town wall, every village hedgerow, every communion rail in every church, every thatched roof of a free man’s house, made the implicit and conservative declaration, against the rapacity of the ambitious, and not only the king, “Authority stands here!” And they were right to so declare. Reflecting on Christ’s admonition to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, that most practical of theologians, Thomas Aquinas, would conclude that the capacity to make and administer law, in accord with divine law, the natural moral law, and the common good, was essential to man as a rational being.
It is not just that the people of Wakefield are in a better position than are the king’s flunkies to determine how their children should be brought up, which men should be constables, and whether stocks or whipping posts better deter disorderly behavior. It is that, if the king or anybody else should take from them the authority to do such things, such usurpation would violate man’s nature. These were the people’s decisions to make. Your nanny might be the best shoelacer in the world, but as long as she ties your laces for you, you are a child, and not a man.
This medieval thrust toward civic freedom did not die. It can still be seen in our Constitution, that American Charter intended to establish that the people—not simply individuals, but the people in their full nature as social and rational beings, freely associating in their guilds, villages, schools, and churches—retain authority prior to all the cravings of Washington or any other Laws R Us.
What happened to that vision? An easy response is the European Enlightenment, but another answer is that the universal vision of the medieval Church, turning in hope to the day of the Lord, when all believers should be united in harmony in the New Jerusalem, had become detached from the understanding that man is fallen. There is no heaven, so man must make his own, if liberated from the darkness of superstition (that is, the Church) and tradition (that is, the family, the village, and the country).
The record of this attempt is speckled at best. Set aside Stalin and Lenin and Mao and the dozens of lesser devils that washed the last century in blood. I do not see that a man in sleepy Stockholm now, hedged round with creature comforts and given plenty of vacation time to poke around in the glorious funeral parlor called Europe, is living as free and full and human a life as an artisan in a chartered town would have done centuries ago, or as the pioneers of the American West did, bearing responsibility and skill and devotion and authority wherever they went.
On this side of the Atlantic, we eat well, and our houses are warm. But is not life more than food and clothing? What now remains to stand against the state and its octopus arms called “social services”? The village is a shadow of its former self. Its school is far away, called a “regional educational center.” If the village is lucky, its principal crossroads boasts an antique store and a coffee shop.
The Church has been beaten into submission. The first commandment of speech in our public square is that we shall never invoke the name of God, unless we do so in vain. The family is a ward of the state, tolerated as long as it does not neglect the children in those ways frowned upon by the elites (you can deprive your child of a father and be cheered for it, but God help you if you let him ride a bike without a helmet).
And brotherhoods, like the brotherhood of barons and bishops who first brought the king to heel? The Boy Scouts, that most innocuous of brotherhoods, whose work on behalf of the community may be seen across the land, hangs on for dear life.
But we need brotherhoods. Recall the Trojan hero Aeneas, who has seen his city in flames and knows it shall never rise again. He would have died fighting the Greeks to the last, but the gods have told him to take his family and the rest of Troy’s survivors on a journey to found a new homeland. So we see him setting forth from his house, carrying his crippled father Anchises, who holds the household gods, precious figurines representing fathers and uncles long past, and leading his little boy, the future of his people, by the hand. It is a picture of piety, the virtue that grounds us, with dutiful obedience to those who came before us, and dutiful leadership of those who will come after.
Fathers of families bound by this kind of piety had founded the Roman republic and kept it running for five centuries, during all but the last few decades of which time Rome had not lapsed into civil war. It was a prodigious achievement. (America did not manage to do it.) The Romans managed it by becoming brothers. Aeneas was no Achilles on the battlefield; he won by inspiring his men, brothers in arms, to fight on, even when the gods seemed to have abandoned them. The heads of the chief families in the Roman republic, the patres, joined with one another in the sacred Senate, literally a gathering of old men. There, together, they fought, forged alliances, denounced one another, heaped praise upon one another, and founded a state and protected it against her enemies. This is the truth that all men know in their hearts. A soldier alone is no soldier. Aeneas does not reach Italy apart from his men. The great Cincinnatus does not save Rome from the Gauls apart from his brother Romans.
We do not have much chance of restoring the English village that Magna Carta and other charters protected, but we can restore the small village of the family. Plenty of conservatives say they support the traditional family, but what they mean by it is a daddy and a mommy and children. Because I love liberty, I want fathers of families, not mere daddies, and I want those fathers to rediscover that their fatherhood does not end at their driveways. I want fathers who seek out one another and stand together to clear a slum, reform a school, build a city, and face down tyrants domestic and foreign. I want a Carta Fraterna, a charter for brotherhood.
We don’t have to travel far back into our own history to unearth that institution. Everyone remembers “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But before July of 1776 there was April of 1775, when at Lexington and Concord the embattled farmers fired the shot heard round the world. Without that band of brothers—ordinary men, farmers and craftsmen, uniting to protect their community—there would have been no Declaration of Independence.
That Declaration ends not with some Enlightenment philosophizing about the rights of man. It ends with something old, traditional, solemn, deeply human. It ends with a blood oath. The signers pledge more than their lives; they pledge their sacred honor as men. Without that band of brothers, there could have been no America.
History ancient and modern shows no example of tyranny overcome and liberty secured without the sweat and blood of brothers in arms. The communists hated the Church and they hated the family, but they feared an electrician named Lech Walesa and the men who followed him, and they were right to fear. If we would regain the muscular liberties of those old medieval towns, we must be strong men, who could band together to defy a king (or a communist tyranny), or defend a village.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.