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APPENDIX I: The Saxon Myth Dies Hard - Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience 
The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).
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The Saxon Myth Dies Hard
For all its inaccuracies, the interpretation of English history presented by the Real Whigs proved remarkably durable. In the mid-nineteenth century Americans were praising Algernon Sidney as “one of the noblest martyrs of that liberty which the progress of civilization and the developments of time seem to point out as the heritage of the Anglo-Saxon race.”1 And another scholar carefully identified the Goths as “the noblest branch of the Caucasian race.” “We are,” he added, “their children.”2
The crux of the whig view was the concept of Germanic superiority and the peculiarly felicitous capacity of the Anglo-Saxon for democratic ways; these ideas remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. At the Johns Hopkins University, America’s first great center of graduate study, Herbert Baxter Adams put forward his germ theory of American history. Keenly alive to “the possibility of tracing the great stream of American democracy to its earlier English source,” Professor Adams asserted that it was from the primitive Teutonic constitution that American democracy derived.3 Woodrow Wilson, one of Adams’s many notable students, commented that the only examples he knew of successful democracy were in governments “begotten of English race,” and where “the old Teutonic habit has had the same persistency as in England.”4
In Berlin, American historian John Burgess, who received his training under the great Rudolf Gneist, learned of “the great struggle for liberty conducted by the English subsequent to the Norman Conquest.” Burgess in turn preached Saxon democracy and its moral for Americans.5 John Fiske’s social Darwinism was in the same vein as the Teutonism of Burgess,6 and evolutionary thought led to a racist adaptation of the whig concept of the noble Saxon. Imperialists reached back into their past, Josiah Strong proclaiming that “the Anglo-Saxon holds in his hands the destinies of mankind.” Strong believed Anglo-Saxons “a race of unequaled energy,” and representative of “the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilizations.” In the Darwinian struggle for existence, Strong found the fitter Saxons had survived owing to “their traditions of civil liberty.”7
In England, the radical Charles Dilke surveyed his world and forecast that the Anglo-Saxon race was the only one which could maintain its freedom.8 Well-intentioned politicians like Dilke’s friend Joseph Chamberlain spoke proudly of “the greatness and importance of the destiny which is reserved for the Anglo-Saxons”;9 he sought to cultivate a union of the Saxon Powers—America, Britain, and Germany. America’s Mr. Dooley was sceptical: “You an’ me, Hinnisey, has got to bring on this here Anglo-Saxon ’lieance.” To Mr. Hennessy’s enquiry, Mr. Dooley explained that “an Anglo-Saxon is a German that’s forgot who was his parents.”10 But in Europe, von Treitschke was both certain and proud of his ancestry and wrote at length of the glories he and his nation derived therefrom. Houston Stewart Chamberlain was sufficiently carried away to propose that Jesus Christ must have been of the Germanic race.11
No one factor can explain completely these racial perversions, but apart from the powerful influence of Darwinian thought, some responsibility rests with those major nineteenth-century historians who lent their names to enough of the Saxon myth to dignify its degeneration into racial and nationalistic causes. “The strong man and the strong nation,” explained William Stubbs, “feel the pulsation of the past in the life of the present.”
According to Bishop Stubbs, “it is to Ancient Germany that we must look for the earliest traces of our forefathers, for the best part of almost all of us originally were German.”12 Stubbs subscribed to the Tacitus interpretation of a noble and democratic Germanic race who transferred their liberal customs to England. Professor Petit-Dutaillis has explained Stubbs’s attitude in terms that make the Bishop seem very nationalistic indeed: “He belonged to the liberal generation which had seen and assisted in the attainment of electoral reforms in England. … He had formed himself in his youth under the discipline of the patriotic German scholars who saw in the primitive German institutions the source of all human independence. He thought he saw in the development of the English Constitution the magnificent and unique expansion of those germs of self-government, and England was for him the messenger of liberty to the world.”13
Historians like Edward Freeman, John Green, John Kemble, and even Henry Adams joined Bishop Stubbs in his conviction that the Anglo-Saxons had enjoyed a democratic society. Henry Adams was deeply interested in “the primitive popular assembly, parliament, law-court and army in one; which embraced every free man, rich or poor.” He noted how “among all German races, none have clung with sturdier independence or more tenacious conservatism to their ancient customs and liberties, than the great Saxon confederation.”14 Tacitus remained a largely unquestioned source. A nonfeudal land tenure and the elective German kingship were carried from the Saxon woods to England to bless that island until the arrival of the Normans. Late-nineteenth-century scholars had relatively few doubts on this subject.
Carl Stephenson has commented that to accept the nineteenth-century interpretation of Anglo-Saxon society, a historian had “first to read into comparatively late sources a meaning which they never had and then apply that misinterpretation to an imaginary society of a thousand years earlier.”15 Tacitus has received a closer examination today. Scholars now agree that the Germania depicted a warrior peasant far different from that claimed by the whig historians. Tacitus described the German people as dominated by a class of warriors who saw agriculture as degrading for them personally and lived off the produce of the lower peasants. Tacitus may have found the Germans a happy contrast to contemporary Rome, but Saxon society was certainly not the democratic one envisaged by Jefferson and the whigs. As a society, in fact, the Saxon was less agrarian than military, and the personal tie which bound peasant to lord involved the performance of a customary service nearly as rigid as that brought in by the Normans. On the credit side for the whigs, it must be emphasized that there was no professional class of knights sustained by military benefices in pre-Conquest England.
The true meaning of the term witan eluded the early historians: Sir Frank Stenton claims the Saxon councils were composed, not of all classes, but of the upper ranks of the aristocracy, along with ecclesiastics when the church became established. The best that Stenton has found is “the character of a constitutional monarchy,” which was “extremely narrow in form.”16
Other features of the whig interpretation have also been subjected to reexamination. The idea of the breach in English historical development occasioned by the Norman Conquest was less popular in the nineteenth than in the eighteenth century. Stubbs began the emancipation from this broken-continuity concept of the whigs, and his influence is evident in Stenton, although such notable scholars as J. H. Round and G. B. Adams continued to argue that the Conquest did interrupt English historical development.
In G. B. Adams’s view the English constitution rested wholly upon the feudal foundations laid by the Normans. The Saxons had been approaching a feudalistic state before the Conquest, but “beneath the superficial similarity, there was a great difference.” According to Adams, the Normans possessed a more centralized absolutism and imposed this upon the Saxons; he explained the similar legislative machinery that ensued as due to the Saxon Chronicles’ habit of persistently calling the Norman curia regis by the old name of witenagemot. The real institutional difference, Adams insisted, was very wide, despite this feudalistic similarity. But there was no real compromise with the whig interpretation: “The origin of the English limited monarchy is to be sought not in the primitive German state, nor in the idea of an elective monarchy or a coronation oath, nor in the survival of institutions of local freedom to exert increasing influence on the central government.”17
Today the prevailing tendency is to view the post-1066 Anglo-Norman state as unique, the result of many antecedents, Saxon, Flemish, Danish, and Breton.18 Most of the later features of whig history have been explored and revealed as false oversimplifications which endured because people wanted to believe. The myth of Magna Charta has been attacked by scholars distressed over extravagant claims made on its behalf. The feudal character of the document is now widely recognized. Its limitations may be disputed, but no longer in the political language of the 1680s.19 Most scholars see the Charter as a grant of privileges on the part of King John to the freemen of England and agree that it could not apply to the mass of a people still thoroughly servile.20 As Faith Thompson has commented, the famous Charter which was so important to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century lawyers and historians “meant many things to many groups, varying greatly from age to age in actual content [meaning] and realistic value.”21
Certainly few whig writers underestimated the Charter’s significance as a support for their claims. But, according to Professor Herbert Butterfield, such “wrong history” may well have been of great political advantage to England, if not to her historical erudition. Whig writers, by providing liberty with the steadying alliance of history and tradition, performed a service that the French (for example) sadly lacked. Revolts in England have been relatively quiet and sober affairs. At least a partial explanation is the manner in which the whig historians brought history, with its substantiation of man’s rights, to the aid of political radicalism. Thus neither Englishmen at home or in America underwent the rigors known to France between 1789–93.22 Viewed in this light, it is possibly the world’s misfortune that myths are becoming intellectual curiosities.
[1.]George Van Santvoord, Life of Algernon Sidney (N.Y., 1854), 333.
[2.]George Perkins Marsh, The Goths in New-England … (Middlebury, Vt., 1843), 13–14.
[3.]W. Stull Holt, ed., Historical Scholarship in the United States, 1876–1901 As Revealed in the Correspondence of Herbert B. Adams (Baltimore, 1938), 113–14.
[4.]Woodrow Wilson, “Democracy,” in Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History, 10 vols. (N.Y., 1902).
[5.]Rudolf Gneist, The English Parliament …, trans. Jenery Shee (London, 1886), 86.
[6.]See Julius W. Pratt, The Expansionists of 1898 … (Baltimore, 1936), chap. 1, for a discussion of the views of Fiske, Burgess, and Strong. See also Edward N. Saveth, American Historians and European Immigrants, 1875–1925 (N.Y., 1948).
[7.]Josiah Strong, Our Country … (N.Y., 1885), 179, 174.
[8.]Sir Charles W. Dilke, Greater Britain … (London, 1869), v–vi.
[9.]Joseph Chamberlain, Foreign and Colonial Speeches (London, 1897), 6.
[10.]Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley in Peace and War (Boston, 1909), 54.
[11.]Houston Stewart Chamberlain, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (London, 1911); see Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, 12 vols. (London, 1948–61), I, 207–71, for a study and discussion of racial and environmental factors in civilizations.
[12.]William Stubbs, Lectures on Early English History, ed. Arthur Hassall (London, 1906), 2–12.
[13.]Charles Petit-Dutaillis, Studies and Notes Supplementary to Stubbs’ Constitutional History (Manchester, 1908), xii–xiii.
[14.]Henry Adams, Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law (Boston, 1876), 1, 6.
[15.]Carl Stephenson, “The Problem of the Common Man in Early Medieval Europe,” American Historical Review 51 (1946): 419.
[16.]Frank M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, Eng., 1947), 546. At the beginning of the twentieth century, H. Munro Chadwick conducted a scholarly analysis the findings of which were in direct contrast to those of Stubbs, Freeman, et al. See his Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions and The Origin of the English Nation (Cambridge, Eng., 1905, 1907).
[17.]George Burton Adams, The Origin of the English Constitution (New Haven, 1912), 3 n, 79, 185.
[18.]See, for example, H. R. Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest (London, 1962), chap. 1.
[19.]See William Sharp McKechnie, Magna Carta, A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John … , 2d ed. (Glasgow, 1914); Max Radin, “The Myth of Magna Carta,” Harvard Law Review 60 (1947): 1060–91; S. B. Chrimes, English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge, Eng., 1936), xvii.
[20.]Carl Stephenson, Medieval History … (N.Y., 1955), 556.
[21.]Faith Thompson, Magna Carta, 375.
[22.]Butterfield, Englishman and His History, 7.