By Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy
As a history professor and long-time instructor in “Western Civilization” classes, I was dumbfounded by recent leftist attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions, at a meeting of U.S. sheriffs, innocuously observed that these highly respected police officials are part of our country’s democratic and “Anglo-American” legal and law enforcement heritage. It was the term “Anglo-American” that stuck in liberals’ collective craw, symbolizing to them the fact that U.S. laws and law enforcement are apparently made of, by, and for (you guessed it) white people. This interpretation of Sessions’ remarks is not only grossly unfair – it also ignores the very real “Anglo-American” basis for our laws, constitution, and democracy.
Americans should understand that our legal system is founded on the British “common law” tradition, which distinguishes the legal environment in Britain and its former colonies, including the U.S., from that in almost every other part of the world. “Anglo-American” common law bases ideas of justice on precedents established in previous judicial rulings. Because of this, many of the assumptions of the American legal system actually predate America itself and hearken back to ideas of justice in medieval and early modern England. Many of our most important legal and constitutional principles – from presuming a person innocent until proven guilty, to allowing people to speak their minds freely, to consulting the people in matters of government – are directly traceable to the British political tradition, which nurtured the growth of similar sentiments in the 13 Colonies.
Our Founding Fathers were under no illusions about the debt we owed to the British. Indeed, they borrowed freely from British political and legal traditions, and consciously copied the ideas and sometimes the language of men like the English political philosopher John Locke. And this is not even to go into the benefits that accrue from our use of the wonderful English language itself, which binds our country together, and the world-historical importance of the fabled Anglo-American “special relationship,” which won two World Wars, plus the Cold War.
Furthermore, when Jeff Sessions observed that the American institution of “sheriff” is an outgrowth of our “Anglo-American heritage,” he was likewise merely stating an obvious truth. Sheriffs were appointed by England’s Kings in the Middle Ages to administer justice at the county level. As Sessions pointed out, our innovation in the United States was to make sheriffs elected officials, so as to maximize their representative character and to make them servants of the people rather than agents of royal authority.
Simply put, we would not have sheriffs in America were it not for our Anglo-American heritage. This is precisely why, outside of areas once ruled by the British Empire, sheriffs do not exist.
Why do liberals consider Sessions’ remark “racist”? Perhaps it is because they do not bother to distinguish between the meaning of the term “Anglo-American” in a legal or historical context, and the meaning of “Anglo” in the cultural context of the American southwest, where the word refers to a white person from a non-Hispanic background. If this is the case, liberals should consider that the New York Times Magazine published an article in November 2016 lamenting the decline of an “Anglo-American order” in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
The New York Times, however, was not condemned as racist. Why? Because there was nothing racist about its position! The Times was merely trying to blame then President-Elect Trump for an anticipated decline in center-left bonhomie between Britain and the United States. Likewise, President Obama used the phrase “Anglo-American” in a legal context on several occasions, and he was never accused of racism.
“Anglo”, therefore, does not always refer to “white people,” and, even if it did, acknowledging the powerful historical role played by white people in history is not “racist”. It is, once again, merely stating the obvious.
The other reason why liberals may be offended by the term “Anglo-American” is because it reminds them that this is a country that was largely founded by immigrants from Europe – the dreaded “white people” of which we spoke earlier. Moreover, there is an argument to be made, and I make it in my classes often, that this is still a nation that is part of “Western Civilization,” and the legacy that this civilization has bestowed on us is overwhelmingly positive.
The fact that we are free to criticize our elected leaders, that we have elections in the first place, that we are all equal in the eyes of the law, that we live in the freest, most prosperous society that has ever existed – all of this is down to the political and social principles that Europeans, mainly Englishmen, bequeathed to us.
Ironically, it is the (largely British) freedoms that we enjoy today that empower liberals to inveigh against the very civilization that birthed modern democracy as well as the competing ideals of Marxism, feminism, and “social justice,” among others. It would make more sense for liberals to acknowledge these contributions than to spurn them, since liberalism itself would make no sense outside of its clearly Western context.
Make no mistake, therefore: Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ words, which honored our country’s “Anglo-American heritage”, were no more racist than the words of the Declaration of Independence. The real racists, I would argue, are those who are so pathologically anti-white that they impute racial animus (even “white supremacy”) to every phrase, no matter how harmless and no matter how true, that escapes the lips of a Republican. Such race-baiting nonsense ought to have no place in our political discourse.
Furthermore, we should embrace rather than reject our heritage as a Western people. The West has achieved spectacular advances in every field of human endeavor, and is especially notable for advancing the cause of human freedom and dignity. That is a tradition of which we all should be proud.
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com.
There are numerous books on Anglo-American law.