It has long been a contention of mine that you could probably write 10 political blogposts and then just recycle them as needed since the same bad political ideas keep resurfacing. In order to test that theory (and put some old writing of mine out where it might actually get read) I’m going to pull some posts from a much-neglected personal blog of mine over to BHL when they seem relevant. Today’s post was written back in May of 2012, and the need to repost it has been spurred by the appearance of the Super Awesome and Groovy Idea of loyalty oaths for business. The loyalty oath, as we shall see, is a very old, very popular, very bad political idea.
2012 Sarah will now tell you all about it.
Apparently yesterday was proclaimed “Loyalty Day” here in the United States of America. We are, so I gather, meant to “rededicate ourselves to the common good, to the cornerstones of liberty, equality, and justice, and to the unending pursuit of a more perfect Union.”
While I deeply appreciate the sophisticated use of the nested Oxford commas there, you’re going to have to forgive me if I decline to proclaim my loyalty and if, in truth, the whole notion of doing so makes me distinctly queasy.
The time and place that I study–early modern England–is rife with loyalty oaths, and oaths of allegiance, and homilies on obedience. Henry VIII started a vogue for Oaths of Supremacy when he established himself as the head of the Church of England. Of course, he also made it high treason to imagine the death of the King, so he clearly had a few issues. Homilies on obedience were sermons that were issued by the government and required to be given from the pulpits of the Church of England on specific days–often the anniversaries of rebellions, uprisings, or plots. They tended to sound a lot like this:
[W]hat a perilous thing were it to commit unto the subjects the judgment, which prince is wise and godly, and his government good, and which is otherwise ; as though the foot must judge of the head : an enterprise very heinous, and must needs breed rebellion. For who else be they that are most inclined to rebellion, but such haughty spirits? From whom springeth such foul ruin of realms ? Is not rebellion the greatest of all mischiefs ? And who are most ready to the greatest mischiefs, but the worst men ? Rebels therefore the worst of all subjects are most ready to rebellion, as being the worst of all vices, and farthest from the duty of a good subject : as, on the contrary part, the best subjects are most firm and constant in obedience, as in the especial and peculiar virtue of good subjects. (1570, in response to the 1569 rebellion in favor of Mary, Queen of Scots)
And they tended to argue that, as monarchs were given to a nation by God, there was no proper course but to obey the given monarch–good or ill–as if he or she were God. If you got a crappy monarch, you just obeyed and hoped your obedience would persuade God to remove said monarch.
What’s fun about homilies on obedience and oaths of supremacy, allegiance, and loyalty is that they show up most often when things are slipping. Henry VIII, for example, and that 1569 rebellion. They aren’t a sign that all is well and that everyone loves the monarch. Because if things were going swimmingly, no one would need to require people to state their loyalty. After Guy Fawkes and his friends tried to blow up Parliament in 1605, James I and VI came up with the Oath of Allegiance which required all English subjects to declare loyalty to the King, and to reject the Pope’s powers. What’s great about James I and VI is that when he gets rolling he makes Henry VIII’s claim that one’s personal imaginings could be high treason look like child’s play. Here he is in 1610, in a speech to Parliament.
God has power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at his pleasure…and the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects; they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death; judges over all their subjects and in all cases…They have power to exalt low things and abase high things, and make of their subjects like men at the chess: a pawn to take a bishop or a knight…
After about six straight years of reading this kind of thing you start cheering when you get to read pamphlets with titles like Killing Noe Murder in defense of the right of the people to resist tyranny, even to the point of regicide. And way before that, you feel really grateful to be living in the 21st century, in America, where oaths of loyalty have never been our kind of thing.