Give Thanks for Albion

mapThis Thanksgiving, appreciate the efforts of the British – namely the ancestors of today’s British. It’s largely because of them that freedom started to flourish.

We’re living in unique times. For most of world history, despotism and slavery were the norm the world over. It only has been within the last few hundred years, and only in certain countries, that those to scourges of mankind finally waned. For that, we owe much to the British.

Centuries ago it had been a given that monarchs wielded absolute power, even over their nobles. People were at the mercy of arbitrary edicts from kings.

The Magna Carta in 1215 started to change that. As Thomas Sowell explains in his book Conquests and Cultures, the Magna Carta was truly unprecedented. The document established rights for nobles that the king had to respect. It was the beginning of the concept of separation of powers. During the ensuing centuries in England, those rights were enshrined in Parliament, which limited the powers of the monarchy. Laws emerged curtailing the powers of not only kings but also of government officials.

In 1695 William and Mary, in an effort to gain support from Parliament and the populace, instituted a bill of rights. Monarchs could no longer remove judges except in cases of misconduct. An independent judiciary became firmly established. “All these things which are now so much taken for granted can be taken for granted only because the British pioneered in the development,” writes Sowell. The concept that people had rights that the monarchy could not override was revolutionary at the time.

Key among those rights were freedom of speech, separation of powers, and the right to a jury trial. These ideas spread to England’s offshoot societies such as the United States and Australia, and became a model for a great many other countries including non-Western ones.

Britain went on to become the world leader in abolishing slavery.

Understand that slavery had been the norm practically everywhere – in Europe (up until the Middle Ages), in Asia, in the Middle East. Until the rise of Great Britain, it was widely accepted. There had been no concerted effort to stamp it out by any government.

“It would be hard to find anywhere in history a record of any other country going to such efforts for so long in a cause from which it could gain so little and lose so much,” writes Sowell.

Of course, Britain had been prominent in promoting the slave trade, like governments everywhere at the time. What was different was that, backed by a moral revulsion against slavery among the British populace, Britain was the first government to work to end it.

Christian denominations, particularly Quakers and Anglicans, were a big factor in that moral revolt. It was in 1808 that Parliament, heeding widespread opposition to slavery throughout the country, voted overwhelmingly to ban the international slave trade. Thereafter Britain goaded other nations, through military (particularly naval) action and moral suasion, to stop slavery. Writes Sowell, “Eventually the antislavery crusade took root in the moral consciousness of European civilization as a whole, even in despotic countries such as czarist Russia.”

So this Thanksgiving, raise a glass to Great Britain. Without it, we may be living like people lived for most of human history – in oppression and slavery.