The false premises of the promised land that failed

(This note was written before the announcement of the Supreme Court on abortion and the latest massacre of children.)


Donald Trump had at least one thing in common with Jesus of Nazareth.  His mission was to overthrow the establishment.  The jury is out, as they say, on Trump’s efforts; but those claiming to follow the teaching of Jesus have created establishment rubrics of their own.  They are far uglier than the one that faced him – and which put him to death.  But by the time they finally got Trump out of the White House, we were left with one question.  Who was better at road-testing the credulity of his people – Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin?

We are all ‘very prone to credulity’.  Spinoza made this remark at the end of a very long sentence with which he began his great tract on religion and politics.  We are ruled by superstition, he said, because we are ‘frequently driven into straits where rules are useless,’ and we are often ‘kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear’ by our uncertainty.  In adversity, no plan is too futile, absurd or fatuous for us.  Superstition is ‘engendered, preserved, and fostered by fear… ‘The mob has no ruler more potent than superstition’’.  By superstition, he meant an unreasoned awe or fear of the unknown – which, he may have added, is the moving source of most religious belief.

Spinoza’s book was published in 1670, and it is a comfort now for those who think that the world was turned upside down with the ascension of Donald Trump.  We have seen and endured worse.  What Spinoza was saying would find an echo in two observations that have since become famous. 

The Pensées of Pascal were also published in 1670.  Pascal said that ‘I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.’  Well, there was Trump, in all of his fearful squalor, centuries before the event. 

What about his credulous followers?  Keats idolised Shakespeare and he spoke of people ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’  His phrase was ‘negative capability’ – and that is anathema to those on parade under their flashy red MAGA caps.  They crave and get instant certainty.

We can put the role of fear in its American context.  H L Mencken said that the ‘whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’  Richard Nixon, as was his wont, gave the unvarnished view.  ‘People react to fear not love.  They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.’  That could have been said by Putin – or worse.  (Both quotes come from Wildland, The Making of America’s Fury, by Evan Osnos, the learning in which has prompted this note.) 

(We are naturally familiar with the politics of fear here in Australia.  The party that calls itself conservative routinely puts the frighteners on an innately timid populace – the current war in Europe is a gift from God for the Hillsong crowd – who are big on miracles generally.)

Spinoza wondered how people who claimed to follow the teaching of the holy man who preached the Sermon on the Mount could ‘quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily toward one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues that they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.’  He said that ‘faith has become a mere compound of credulity and prejudices…which completely stifle the power of judgment between true and false…and become a tissue of ridiculous mysteries.’

Well, there you have a snap of the cancer and the pain of the United States today, and it prompts reflections on the false premises of a land that has so badly failed to deliver on its promises.  


It all began with the Puritans.  England was glad to see the back of them.  (It was a close-run thing when Oliver Cromwell decided to stay in England.)  The English take their politics too seriously to let God interfere with them. 

The English got their religious Home Rule in place in the 16th century.  That was all about politics and it had nothing to do with religion.  They have seen zealots – under Cromwell, the Puritans wanted to close the pubs – but zealots rarely last there. 

The English finally settled with the Crown and the Church in what they call the Glorious Revolution in 1689.  They have had no real trouble from either since then.  It would be hilarious to suggest that the Archbishop of Canterbury might cause discomfiture in 10 Downing Street.

The Queen is the head of the State and the Church – and defender of the faith.  That would be unthinkable heresy in the U S.  But the church plays next to no part in English politics – while God’s fingerprints are all over the mess in the U S.  So much, then, for doctrine – and high-flown constitutional phrasing.

One big difference is that the Puritans had the numbers in America.  They could make laws out of their Godly zeal.  On the way over the Atlantic, they made covenants with God.  Well, even though there was a precedent, that was no small thing.  Nor is standing by God, or being chosen by God, a prescription for humility. 

But we see this notion of contract or assent at the founding of the settlements.  Together with the solemn standing of the individual.  But as well as hostility to Rome, there are the seeds of distrust of laws made by people and the people who make and enforce such laws.  That stuck.

Such people are hard to govern – with God on their side, they are nearly impossible to restrain.  And the trouble then is that since that faith is founded on revelation, and is beyond logic, let alone proof, some people just opt out of all sensible discussion, and lose any sense of tolerance or restraint.

The great jurist Roscoe Pound was in no doubt about the Puritan impact on the American polity.  Equity is that part of Anglo-American law that was developed to soften the rigour of the common law and to allow relief for the poor and the afflicted.

The Puritan has always been a consistent and thoroughgoing opponent of equity.  It runs counter to all his ideas.  For one thing, it helps fools who have made bad bargains, whereas he believes that fools should be allowed and required to act freely and then be held [to account] for the consequences of their folly.  For another thing, it acts directly upon the person.  It coerces the individual free will.

There are two things there – the hard Darwinian streak that appals people who have never set foot in the States, and ideology, which is something that the English happily foreswear.

But the Puritans brought a darker problem with them.  Theirs was a commercial enterprise.  When does your hunger for a dollar come between you and God?  How do you establish a commonwealth dedicated to building a wealthy establishment based on the teaching of a penniless, tearaway Jewish hasid, who was sent to put a bomb under the status quo, and who signed his own death warrant when he took the lash to the money people in the temple?

Your answer to that question will depend on where you stand, but very few outside America believe that the Americans have come even close to a coherent, let alone decent, answer.  And they have looked on in horror at people who claim to profess that faith coming under the thrall of the closest thing that people have ever seen to the Anti-Christ.

There, then, was one false premise, or bad foundation, of the new born nation.


Another was of course the Original Sin of the Union – the barefaced lie that all people are equal.  (An equally untrue statement would be that the Founding Fathers believed in ‘democracy’ in any meaning known to us now.)  The Union has never been able to erase the stain of slavery, not even with the blood of 600,000 dead in the Civil War, or the saintly genius of Abraham Lincoln.  Other former colonies have brutalised the indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa and Asia, but none is so morally maimed by an abiding sense of racial superiority as the United States.

Dregs come to the surface during unrest.  Look at Titus Oates in the events in England leading to 1689 or at Jean-Paul Marat in France after 1789.  What Trump did was to allow creatures like this to ‘come out’ of the closet.  The MAGA folk said that Trump said what they felt.  And all Europe was revolted by the sight of torchbearers at Charlottesville chanting about Jews, and it was even more revolted by the reaction of Trump.  And then a white police officer killed a man of colour by kneeling on his neck – murder in cold blood and plain sight in the Great Republic.

Loud, bullying lawyers attract loud, bullying clients.  The same may hold good for politics.  When ambition turned a Scots aspirant to crime, he very soon found himself consorting with people who were so incensed by the ‘vile blows and buffets of the world’ that they were reckless what they could ‘do to spite the world’ (Macbeth, 3.1.108 ff).  In a regulated economy, Trump could never be appointed as a director of a public company because of the company he keeps.  His associates, all of limited duration, are as devoid of truth and decency as the satraps of Putin.


The Declaration of Independence carried another falsehood that is less often remarked on, but which is very revealing about the national psyche. 

If I hire somebody to deliver my newspaper, and he later says that he will not deliver the paper if the temperature falls below a certain point, or on his Sabbath, I may say that if you are not prepared to play your part, I will regard the contract as being at an end – and I will get someone else to do the job (and bill you for any price increase).  In the language of our law, I have elected to accept your repudiation of the contract, so that it is discharged on breach.  If I was in business, I would probably get a lawyer to document the process by cataloguing the breaches of contract on your part and the rights that I assert that I got as a result.

Charles I tried to rule England without parliament.  That ended with his execution after a civil war.  James II also sought to take the place of parliament.  That led the English to say that he had repudiated his agreement with the nation and that they would get someone else to be king. 

A young barrister named John Somers was retained to draw up what became the Bill of Rights – which is now more celebrated in the U S than the U K.  Somers, and others, did a fine job in listing the ways in which James II had subverted the English constitution and deprived the people of their rights. 

So, when the rebel American colonists asserted their right to terminate relations with the English, they got a lawyer named Jefferson to do the paperwork.  And, as lawyers are wont to do, Jefferson turned to precedent.  And he had one ready-made for that purpose.  He could just change a few dates, places and events – and there you had the Declaration of Independence – the foundation stone of the Union that would become the most powerful nation on earth.

What led to the rupture with the mother country?  Tax.  That’s not at all odd.  Bad divorces are usually about money.  How did Jefferson deal with it?  Reluctantly and evasively.  We need not trouble with some of his tasteless nonsense that was too much even for Congress.  The alleged crimes or wrongs of England – or its king – are set out.  But you have to wait for about number 20 on the charge sheet before you get to the word ‘tax’. 

And then the author gets it dead wrong.  He alleges that it was King George III who levied the taxes that set the colonies on the road to rebellion.  But – and as Jefferson of all people well knew – the whole point of the Glorious Revolution was that the king of England did not have the power on his own to levy taxes.  The very precedent that Jefferson drew on said point blank that the ‘imposition of any taxes by the Crown without the permission of Parliament is illegal.’

It is hard, then, to see how Jefferson could resist a finding that he had said something knowing it to be false.  Nor can this be dismissed as mere window dressing laid out to placate the locals.  Nation building, like marriage, is not something to be entered into lightly or ill advisedly. 

But here we have a coyness, a want of candour, on a crunch issue that has persisted.  Judges are known to remark to witnesses that when the subject of tax comes up, a kind of mist or a set of blinds descends over the eyes of the witness or the windows of the court room.  We see that today when the subject of tax comes up with Americans in government.  The feeling is at best one of uneasy discomfort.  People shuffle their feet and look askance.

But there is more to it.  The Declaration says that one unalienable right is ‘the pursuit of Happiness.’  One object of the Union declared in the Constitution is to ‘promote the general Welfare.’  That comes as something of a shock to people in Europe, because that is what they believe that all governments of the United States have resolutely refused to do – look after the ‘welfare’ of the people. 

But, on any view the pursuit of happiness or the promotion of the general welfare of hundreds of millions of people will require money – and lots of it.  That means taxes – and lots of them.  But the peoples and governments of the U S have not been able live with this inescapable call on their pockets.


That brings us to the final flaw in the make-up of the new born nation. 

The English constitution is in writing, but it is to be found in a number of sources – including Magna Carta, the writ of Habeas Corpus, and the Bill of Rights – and the whole of the common law. 

The relevant law is clear there – all parts of the constitution are subject to the will of the people as expressed by their Parliament.  That is the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy.  The governance of England is subject to judicial scrutiny under the common law, as affected by statute, but the English Supreme Court has nothing like the power of the American Supreme Court to strike down whole statutes as invalid under their constitution.  Any such notion was dead in England well before the American rebellion.

The U S constitution is set out in a single document. It has entrenched written guarantees – entrenched in the sense that Congress cannot alter them.  That can only be done by the people at large – who were the original source of power. 

It follows that in breaking away from the mother country, the colonists were doing much more than making a claim to sovereignty – a tricky enough notion at the best of time.  They were embarking on a diversion of juristic thought of a kind that was and is wholly alien to the mother country.

We have not given sufficient attention to this difference in political and juristic thought between England and America.  It resembles in some ways the difference in outlooks on either side of the English Channel.

The Roman law derived from codes and codification is its preferred mode of growth.  Roman lawyers look for formal elegance.  The Code Napoléon is the paradigm.  (Flaubert used to study it before starting to write.)  The common law cares little for theory, grand designs, and codification.  It arrived, as if by accident, over a period of time – the product of trial and error.  One is the rationalist view of the world.  The other is the empirical.  Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the ‘life of the law has not been logic, but experience.’ 

The English lawyers learned on the job, and were taught by lawyers in practice.  Roman lawyers studied at universities.  The judges were trained by their government.  English judges came from the Bar.  For centuries it was a source of principled opposition to the Crown.  There is a collegiate closeness between the Bench and the Bar that you do not get in Europe or the U S – in part because they have no bar as we know it.

The English had little time for intellectuals – that is still the case.  The juristic and political tone is subject to the profession in practice – not to the academy – not even Cambridge and Oxford.  One of the differences in practice is that the English prefer the adversarial and the French and Germans prefer the inquisitorial mode of trial.

The political divide hits you right between the eyes.  In 1789, The Social Contract by Rousseau – whom Carlyle called the Evangelist – contained high theory that engaged those in leading the revolution and in creating the French Bill of Rights.  In 1689, the English just got rid of the Stuarts, with the help of a Dutch army, and then went on with their lives.  As it happened, a philosopher, John Locke, wrote a rationalisation after the event – which almost no English MP has ever heard of.  That revolution was successful.  The English never had another – and Macaulay purred over that success.  The French were in for a century of agony, and people lost count of their models of government. 

The English just want to know if something works – the rest doesn’t really matter.  Then you could look at Russia.  What a noble statement of human values lies there! 

Does it all then just come down to a state of mind?  What we do know now is what we had only suspected might be the case – that a polity founded on many centuries of movement and learning could be cast adrift well inside one generation. 


Well, things can get very different from the English model under an encoded constitution that lays down large statements about the rights of man.  That sounds more French or German than English.  It leads to very different intellectual and juristic processes – that those trained in the common law are just not equipped to handle. 

We in Australia found that out very soon and very painfully.  Someone had written in our constitution that trade between the states should be ‘absolutely free’.  Could they have picked a more dangerous double?  The result got very ugly – for the best part of a century.  It resembled someone serving an Irish Stew – of the dark variety – poured all over a Passionfruit Bomb Alaska.

To common lawyers outside America, the consequences there have been less than pretty.  The United States was born a juristic bastard child.

The constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, has lent an intellectual and ideological tone to legal and political thought there that is more European than our common law tradition.  We are not used to dealing with absolutes – and our trying to work around them gives rise to something sadly like sophistry.  And that just smells in our political forums or law courts.  You will see that in talking of human activity being ‘absolutely free’, we cracked the double – each word can be so loaded as to be explosive.

‘Freedom’ is now the most debased word both here and the U S.  It found new lows in the epidemic. 

If the law requires me to wear a mask, that law restricts my freedom.  So does a law that requires me to stop at a red light in traffic.  All laws restrict freedom.  That is what they are made for.  That is part of the cost of living together in ways not known to gorillas.  My freedom stops when your injury begins. 

The call for the law – its justification – in a democracy comes from the majority.  If you are in the minority, and you are aggrieved, that is part of the price of living in a democracy.  You are not ‘free’ to ignore the law.  You can’t just opt out from to time.  Conscientious objection does not run in this kind of war.  Living with other people means that you cannot always do what you want to do.  Any law necessarily impedes the freedom of those who make it.

These are not difficult notions. To complain of a law on the ground that it restricts your freedom to do what you want is like objecting to a German Shepherd because it is a dog. 

When thousands were dying from Covid each day in the US, the governor of a western state, who objected to wearing a mask, set a new standard of inanity.  ‘My people are happy because they are free’.  Well, yes Madam – but the pursuit of happiness becomes a little trickier when you are dead.

This is a simple case people of putting their personal interests over those of their community.  That is called being selfish.  And it comes about because people prefer a dodgy syllogism about a wobbly political value to common sense and plain decency.  That is, they put logic over experience.  That is not how the common law works.

Allow me another example where Australians believe Americans have let ‘freedom’ run amok.  Our notion of democracy is simple.  We elect people to make laws.  And we appoint people to determine if someone has broken the law.  We therefore have parliaments and juries.  We are legally obliged to participate in both processes.  I cannot just opt out of doing jury service and I cannot just opt out of voting for parliament.  That is part of the price of democracy.  Having to stop at a redlight is part of the price of being allowed to participate in an activity that kills thousands of people every year.  Otherwise, the system will not do what it was set up to do. 

But that is not for America.  A combination of queerness about freedom and rigging the system denies to the American people this elemental part of the machinery of government.  Between them, George Orwell and Tammany Hall have produced the worst electoral system in the world – one that could have been designed by God to ensure that the people of America get what opponents of democracy have always feared – the lowest common denominator. 

And just think of the national – the international – disasters that could have been avoided had they let sense overcome the silly and the crooked – starting with Donald Trump.


The worst American case of ideology run off the rails for foreign common lawyers is the right to bear arms and the resulting slaughter of children. 

The relevant clause came originally from the English Bill of Rights.  The English put it in while telling the king he could not have a standing army without the approval of parliament.  (That right was of course reserved for Protestants.)  It served its purpose and it lies now in peace in history. 

Only a lunatic would suggest that it might support a right to carry handguns in self-defence – by a Catholic or Protestant.  The use of hand-guns in London had been banned by royal proclamation under the Stuarts.  (The Supreme Court in the U S may not have known that.)  How far back do you want to go in quest of some doctrinal ‘original’ purity?  And do you just cover up the hiccup about this wonderful right of man being denied to those of the then wrong faith?  Do you really want to cede modernity or even relevance to the Stuart kings of England?

But that is the murderous law in force in America today, and it is a law that revolts almost all people outside America, and leaves Americans looking like greedy, backward, violent hillsmen and gangsters.  And it is also a law made by unelected judges of the most pretentious body of elder guardians since the passing of the Spartan Gerontia.

Perhaps we might go back to the statement of the purposes of the Union in the Constitution. 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The supporters of the current gun laws, including the Supreme Court – and all its justices are answerable – might at least concede that the United States have manifestly failed to ‘establish Justice’ or ‘insure domestic Tranquility.’ 

And ‘insure’ in that context is not a weak term.


And while they are in a confessional mood, the triumphal freedom-fighters across the water might own up to another failure that is equally as shocking, if not more so, to people in Europe.  That is the failure ‘to promote the general Welfare’ – which would be part of the general pursuit of happiness.

In June 1908, the son of a Welsh cobbler introduced a bill for an old age pension to the House of Commons.  In doing so, he stated the premise of what came to be called New Liberalism.

These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal. They are problems which the State has neglected for too long

That MP and another who was a scion of the working class, and the son of an American woman, a man who would boast that he ratted twice, got that law through parliament over a ferocious opposition that could easily have exploded into revolt.  It was avoided when the king, on the advice of his ministers, threatened to create enough peers to get the bill made into law. 

The aristocracy was finally neutralised, and it has behaved itself ever since.  England saw the beginning of the Welfare State.  (They were in truth spurred on by the example of Bismarck in Germany.)  And all that happened under a party called the Liberal Party – when the Labour Party in England was in its infancy.

Lloyd George led the British people through the First World War.  Churchill led them through the Second.  They were two of the nittiest, grittiest politicians that the world has known.  But each of them had something that we just no longer see – a principled vision of what was best for the people they served, and a fierce determination to try to get it for them.  (Roosevelt is the only other person you could mention in the same breath for the whole century.)

The general principles of the Welfare State are now accepted as essential to a civilised community across the western world.  Except for the United States.  And it’s about time they acknowledged what a grubby, cruel, little duckpond they preside over.  The United States are at least a century behind Europe on welfare; and centuries more behind on guns and keeping the peace, the first function of the law.

As I see it, most people living now in London, Paris, Berlin, or Melbourne would never wish to settle permanently in the U S.  They may not fear race riots, or being unable to afford health care, or seeing their children in danger of being shot.  They would just rather not live among people who are content to think and vote along lines that produce such a community.

But there may not be much point in saying that over there.  In 1838, a visiting French man, Alexis de Tocqueville, was unsettled by two aspects of the young nation.  First, he knew of no country where the love of money had taken ‘a stronger hold’ on people.   The other was ‘this irritable patriotism of the Americans’ – especially if a stranger is rash enough to venture a criticism of them.


Lloyd George and Churchill got their budget passed after the king, under huge political pressure, threatened to swamp the House of Lords with new peers who would pass the law.  This was the second time the Crown had invoked that power to avert what could have been revolution.  The first came with the great Reform Bill in the previous century.

Here then was one of the ‘checks and balances’ of the English constitution.  That term is now debauched in the United States by unprincipled people who play games not just to frustrate government but to make it impossible.  They don’t just wish to put a spoke in the wheel – they want to send the whole train right off the rails. 

In the hands of someone utterly without principle or shame, like Ted Cruise or Jim Jordan, the result is a disaster that brings the whole nation into contempt – at home as well as abroad.  These people revel in stunts that in a decent court are dismissed as vulgar humbug not to be repeated by anyone who wants to retain the right to be heard and seen in decent company.  They play the kind of games indulged in by spoiled children who have never learnt any better.  And they involve a denial of the premise of any decent governance – restraint and tolerance, and an understanding that all governance rests on conventions that people can breach for short term gain and long-term loss.

That is always the risk when you pile on too much law.  Then people who think they are clever – a death knell in any decent court –act as if the inevitable gaps in the written fabric allow them to flout the assumptions that underly the whole show.  We are then left wondering whether people like Trump, Cruz or Jordan have any idea of what good faith or bona fides might mean.  Their whole lives are just forms of cheating.  Like little boys cribbing at marbles in the sand-pit behind school.

And just look at all the blather about the rigid separation of state and church.  England has an established church, which puts the Crown right in line for a conflict of interest, and it has no constitutional guarantees about religion, but it is utterly untroubled by any tension between God and Caesar.


God is all over politics in the U S – not as permeating as with the Puritans, but a form of curse nevertheless. 

Abortion may be politically sensitive in countries with a strong Catholic presence – like Ireland, Poland or much of South America – but God has made it venomous in the U S.  In the result, many people cast their vote for President, the head of the executive branch, on the footing that the candidate they favour will appoint judges to the Supreme Court, the head of the judicial branch, who will de facto make laws about abortion, an area that is not subject to a grant of power to Congress, the legislative branch. 

In the result, the rest of the world looked on while people claiming to follow the teaching of the man Einstein called the luminous Nazarene voted for and supported a man whose every breath is a denial of all that Christ stood for.  They did so in the faith and hope that he might appoint judges who would make the law accord more with their religious beliefs – on a subject upon which Christ was utterly silent.

Any ship that is so randomly steered is likely to end up on the rocks.


And that is just what happened on 6 January 2021, when the gutter erupted over the Capitol, and rehearsed the old truth seen by Spinoza that the ‘mob has no ruler more potent than superstition’.  One crazed hoodlum was even heard to utter – ‘Where is my pursuit of happiness’? 

Was this what it was really like when Constantinople fell in 1453?  Was this the promised end?

It is neither captious nor irreverent to repeat the great question put by the greatest American of them all – can a nation so conceived and dedicated long endure? 

What do you do with people so beguiled by what Spinoza called superstition that they are beyond persuasion?  Among the people near the Capitol that day, the concept of truth was ridiculed below after having been repudiated above.  When does derangement become madness?

Differences in wealth are amenable to political management and treatment – at least in theory.  But differences of race are differences of caste.  We are reminded of the distinction between rebellion and revolution. 

The various lesions and fissures in the Union must find release.  Carlyle said this of France at the start of 1789:

While the unspeakable confusion is everywhere weltering within, and through so many cracks in the surface sulphur-smoke is issuing, the question arises: Through what crevice will the main Explosion carry itself? Through which of the old craters and or chimneys; or must it, at once, form a new crater for itself?

Well, only God knows the answer to that question, but the speed and gravitational pull of the descent of the Union so far has frightened a lot of people.  And we have no idea what might be in store if the fall resumes or continues. 

The U S celebrates 4 July for different reasons to France on 14 July.  Might they come to the same conclusion –after years of inhuman repression, absurd inequality, and burning resentment, might a whole caste rise up and obliterate the whole of the ancien régime?

And the current decline has encouraged a few others.  Messrs Putin and Xi obviously thought that the world had changed sufficiently for them that they could pursue ruthless expansion in ways that would have been unthinkable five years ago.


And then we have witnessed a most dreadful moral failure.  People like Cruz and Jordan are serial pests who have never learned any better and who are distrusted and unloved on their own side.  They are just ballast for the dustbin of history.

But people like Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham are different.  They were once respected.  They saw themselves as like the senators of ancient Rome, avuncular elders worthy of the trust of the people and of the Republic.  They knew all about Trump and they were capable of doing something to restrain him.  They were obliged to do so under the offices that the people appointed them to hold.  They failed in their duty and they failed their country.  They ratted.

These disgraced relics of American times passed bring to mind one of my favourite anecdotes from our history.  Alfred Deakin and Billy Hughes each became Prime Minister of Australia.  They were very different.  Deakin was a man of letters and conscience.  Hughes (who was also of Welsh descent) was a gutter fighter.  Hughes savaged Deakin for changing sides on one issue.  He said someone had mentioned Judas.  That was unfair.  It was unfair to Judas!  Judas had at least had the courtesy to toss away the silver and then hang himself.

The threatened abolition of the constitutional law on abortion by the U S Supreme Court shows off the grosser flaws in the U S polity – the infection of religious dogma; a law-making contradiction in terms; an institution being undermined to the point of distinction by party politics; and ideology masked by outright duplicity from people who really should know better.

Well, then – our politicians in Australia are mediocre, and our politics are tedious – but we are not mad.

U S – Bill of Rights – gun laws – abortion – failed state – failed God – constitution.

Passing Bull 314– Lost ideologies

As I remarked earlier, we don’t do ideology in Australia.  

If the IPA had its way, the Liberal Party would die.  John Roskam says ‘federal Liberals haven’t known what they stand for since May 2014’ – when Abbott and Hockey sought to end ‘the age of entitlement’. 

That had to fail.  We have depended on government since 1788.  Attempts to reduce its role are doomed.  As is any party determined to cut benefits or make government smaller.

Rather than asking itself what it believes in and seeking support for policies that reflect those beliefs, the Liberal Party is reduced to pandering to the enthusiasms of a loud and privileged elite.

The independents defeated party appointments because people wanted their MPs to listen to them, and not just toe the party line.  Mr Roskam asks the Liberal Party to do just that.  The IPA is the best argument the independents have.

And Mr Roskam pushes his barrow in a way that people have rejected – by invoking a banal catch phrase.  He says Liberals are ‘pandering to the enthusiasms of a loud and privileged elite.’  If that is how you dismiss issues about the environment, integrity or the standing of women, you are begging for oblivion.

Tim Smith went on the Outsiders.  A member of the Liberal Party doing that resembles a Cardinal handing out condoms after mass.  Mr Smith urged the Liberal Party to forget ‘woke elites’ in the inner suburbs. 

Why stop at one cliché if you can nail two?  Stick with the outer suburbs – where real men can speak their minds – as they can to Donald Trump.

And what is it about the ‘elites’ that troubles Mr Roskam and Mr Smith?  Those people are smart enough to know and call out real bullshit when they smell it.  And people like Messrs Roskam and Smith and Sky After Dark are full of it.

And, with grace, we have put them behind us.

IPA – Roskam – Tim Smith – elites – Liberal Party.

Passing Bull 313– Election sulks

The Murdoch press is sulking after the election.  The people on Sky After Dark say that the Liberal Party needs to go ‘right’ – whatever that means.  It will take time to settle, but some things seem clear enough.

First, to people not committed to the Coalition, it is a relief that the nation rejected a government whose position was indefensible on two main issues – climate and integrity – and that had gone out of its way to insult half the nation – women.

Secondly, although the Murdoch people say that the Labor vote has gone down, what is clear is that a very large majority of voters have repudiated the government on the three issues campaigned on by the victorious independents.  That suggests that the invitation to the Liberal Party to go ‘right’ is an invitation to suicide.

Thirdly, for a number of reasons, the reluctance of some Australians to vote ‘Labor’ has gone.  The coalition has lost its shield of social class.

Fourthly, if the Liberal Party has not resolved its tension between its ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ wings, it has not lost its respect for the Menzies model – try to keep government in order, but look after the losers.  That is the basis of what most Australians want.  It follows – or it should follow – that disputes between the parties will be over issues of detail.  And is that not as it should be?  Don’t most of us know what we want?  What is I think clear is that anyone in Australia saying ‘I reject the Menzies model’ would be putting a gun to their own heads.

Fifthly, one of our merits in Australia is that we reject ideology.  The IPA is a sad relic.  It looks now like we have rejected game playing – trying to game the system by winning votes on the fringe.  John Howard did it with Pauline Hanson.  Tony Abbott did it with the ‘carbon tax’ and Morrison was all over it – most objectionably with that nasty woman Deves, who was ushered around as a gagged dummy of vitriol.  And the heir apparent, Dutton, is guilty of gaming in his silly but dangerous remarks about China.  Those sorts of games delivered seats to independents and Greens.  That is why a turn to the ‘right’ would be madness.

Sixthly, I hope that the Liberal Party will reject the Howard/Abbott/Morrison model and live decently with the Menzies model – and drop the Nats altogether.  They are pungently unattractive and unhelpful relics.  The country needs a strong, decent, coherent opposition’.  People of my age know how useless the other side was in that role in the 50’s and 60’s when its purists thought it was better to be pure than to be elected.

Seventhly, there are real grounds for hope that the infusion of qualified women – those people that the frightened people at the Murdoch press condemn as ‘elites’ – together with people from other ethnic backgrounds will decently represent Australians and lead to an improvement in all levels of government.  God only knows it could not get worse.

Election – ALP -Liberal Party – Howard – Morrison – IPA.

Passing Bull 312 – Greed in politics

The Age the other day had a piece by Ross Gittins:

It’s a sad commentary on modern politics that no mainstream politician would dare suggest we vote for them because they’d best advance the public interest.  They know that we know their greatest interest is in advancing their own career – so, to attract our votes, they offer bribes.

They’ve trained us to see elections as transactional, not aspirational.  You want my vote? What are you offering? And is that better or worse than the other side’s offering?

Bleak – but correct.

I now have the misfortune to be in a ‘safe’ seat.  As I said elsewhere, that mean two things – life tenure; and not having to answer correspondence.

Would that I had one of those independents to vote for.

The day that the Gittins piece appeared, a pamphlet arrived in my letterbox from the ‘safe’ aspirant – of whom I had never heard and whose name I will probably never hear again.

Sure enough, tradition demanded that he offer to buy my vote.  ‘$15 Million to upgrade Whitten Oval.  $4.7 Million to deliver the Vietnamese Australia in Footscray.’  And so on.

Were these bribes really necessary?

Some of these people could watch Coriolanus again.

Here and there – Russian war crimes and Henry V

You can see Russian war crimes ‘live’, as it were, on BBC TV.  Two Russian soldiers talk to two Ukrainian civilians, and then return and shoot them in the back.  Murder.  This murder is a war crime because it was committed in a war.  The invasion itself is a war crime – this is a war of aggression. 

The Russian response comes straight from Wonderland.

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

War crimes come up twice in Henry V. 

Harry’s father got the crown through the rebellion.  The son is worried about being infected by his father’s rebellion.  But young Harry did not have to stoop ‘to bypaths and indirect crooked ways’ to get the crown which would then sit ‘troublesome’ on his head.  Instead, for what looks to us to be a perverse reason, he chose a stunt of his own.  He would consort with low life and ‘so offend to make offense a skill’ – so that when he throws off the guise, he will look just beaut to all the world. 

That deceitful puppeteering looks grotesque to us.  The Everyman Edition refers us to Ephesians 5.7ff – ‘for ye were sometimes in darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light…’

Harry will of course have to repudiate those dupes who have put their trust in him.  And they will have no remedy – because they don’t matter.  Harry is, then, a dedicated skunk.  His ratbaggery makes that of his dad look respectable.  At least Bolingbroke was taking on those who were above him.

And so, King Henry V repudiates Falstaff.  Milton may have said that ‘earth felt the wound.’  And the king gets to repeat the dose in the play named after him.  One of the motley that Harry has repudiated is Bardolph – a serious drunk with a lighthouse nose.  Bardolph has robbed a church.  For this he is to be hanged.  But surely with friends in high places, he can be saved?  Not by this stony-hearted king.

We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we give express charge, that in our marches through the country, there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

Even by the standards of Canberra, this is sickening claptrap.  It comes from the blood-crazed killer who threatened the French not with impiety, but something darker:

…. in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds

Then the French kill young boys.  Fluellen says this was ‘expressly against the law of arms’.  (Which King Henry presumably did not have in mind when uttering the threats set out above).  So, the king orders his men to kill their prisoners.  War crime will be answered by war crime. 

The name of Alexander the Great comes up.  Fluellen says that in a rage, Alexander killed his friend Cleitus.  Gower says their king never killed a mate.  This opens the way for Fluellen to bring in the previous duplicity of King Henry V.

It is not well done, mark you now, take the tales out of my mouth, ere it is made and finished.  I speak but in the figures and comparisons of it: as Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgments, turned away the fat knight with the great belly-doublet: he
was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and mocks; I have forgot his name.

The audience had not.  You may recall that earlier the Hostess had said that the king had killed the heart of Falstaff.

So, there are stories about war crimes spread over about seventeen hundred years.  If you go back further to the Iliad, you get the terrifying drive of Achilles – ‘the most dangerous man alive’ – that allows you to see why Shakespeare depicted him as a cold -blooded murderer – like, say, Putin – in Troilus and Cressida.

And the distortion about truth in war persists.  In their films, both Olivier and Branagh left out the order of the English king to kill prisoners.  The first film was made in war time and security dictated caution.  That was not the case with Branagh.  The omission could not be described as incidental.

It was fundamental.  The popular image of the play would put Shakespeare in the firing line with Kipling for jingoism.  Well, this playwright is not susceptible to that kind of pigeon-holing.  Life is a little more complicated – and so is war.  The suggestion that the mighty victor at Agincourt was a war criminal must give us pause.  Why, then, are we deprived of it in the films – by English directors?  Just who is the jingoist now?

At the production I saw in Stratford, they started off firing tennis balls into the crowd.  I caught one.  They were a reference to the threatening of the French after their crude response involving tennis balls (2.4).  They would be answered in ripe, royal style by Montjoy (3.6).  They are great moments of our stage.  Branagh gave the part of Exeter to his favourite – Brian Blessed – of Z Cars (‘a teddy boy in uniform’).  Christopher Ravenscroft played Montjoy.  They are both wonderful.  A great way to warm up for a Grand Final.

May I return to the Ukraine?  Putin is finding out what the English found in America, what the French found in Algeria, and what we found in Vietnam and Iraq.  The home team have so much more to fight – and die – for.  On my only visit to the Kremlin, our guide said ‘That’s the gate he came in; that’s the gate, he went out by.’  He was not talking about Adolf Hitler.  He was talking about 1812.

When the empowered French revolutionaries thought of exporting their gift of liberty, Robespierre mocked them out loud.  People, he said, will not accept ‘armed missionaries’.  Is not the contrary just ludicrous? 

Napoleon is said to have been intelligent.  On what possible basis could the Emperor of France have thought that a Russian man being bayoneted or a Russian woman being raped by a foreign invader might ask about the ideological drive of the commander of the murderer or rapist?

And we know that in these dirty wars, commenced on slender grounds, it is just a matter of time before the loathed invaders, who feel down if not plain guilty, begin to commit war crimes. 

Elsewhere, I concluded a list of the problems facing the invader with these items:

The war becomes one of exhaustion and attrition, which in turn exaggerates the above advantage of the home team.  Because of its felt superiority, its actual ignorance, and its sustained frustration, the away team resorts to atrocious behaviour that it would never be guilty of in a normal war, or against an enemy of its own kind.

And that brings us to the reasons for the English invasion set out in Henry V.  The grounds available are adumbrated – I think that’s the word – by the leading prelate – and they do look suppositious – and I know that’s the word.  People commonly giggle in the theatre.  Harry says he is reluctant, but he does not sound like it.  The church offers to chip in ‘a mighty sum’, and then the French seal it by referring to young Harry’s ‘wilder days’ – ‘you savour too much of your youth.’  It’s as if they have fallen into the trap that young Harry laid for Falstaff and the cockneys!  Was any of the stuff being parroted by these sycophantic courtiers worth what Bismarck called ‘the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier’? 

What I see here is a war undertaken to feed men’s egos and wallets.  That’s common. 

The view of the common man is represented by Williams.  When the king says that his cause is just and his ‘quarrel honourable’ – a difficult notion for us – Williams says ‘That’s more than what we know’.  And when Harry says that he has heard that the king said he would not be ransomed, Williams gives what I might call the traditional response of a commoner to Majesty: ‘And he said so, to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne’er the wiser.’  A Tommy may have said that to Haigh, but not to Churchill.  And Majesty has no answer. 

But the king again resorts to deception in dealing with commoners.  And Williams takes the point and the match: ‘Your Majesty came not like yourself; you appeared to me but as a common man…’  What drove Harry to this deception?  We know all about it from the time Harry put on the mask of deception at the start of the series.

Well, the issue of the casus belli in Henry V is not as plain as the head of the CIA telling the leader of the free world that the weapons of mass destruction were a ‘slam dunk.’  But this playwright was rarely obtuse.  Men, women and children get gobbled up in war.  The playwright gently reminds us that this is not something to giggle about – or even wave a flag about. 

What then do we see of Harry in Henry V?  In my view, we have not paid enough attention to his duplicity and predatory deception.  Whatever else I see in Harry, it is not ‘this star of England.’  It is something we are far more familiar with – a spoiled careerist politician who is unashamedly two-faced.

And that in turn brings me back to the role of God in these wars – or, better, the role of His church.  The Orthodox Church in Russia has a revolting history of alliance with power.  (Its contribution to the governance of Greece is a matter for another time.)  The Orthodox Church of Russia is in this war of aggression up to its neck.  So was the English church in the play.  They solemnly gave Harry his pretext, cheered him on, and agreed to underwrite the war.  That church was, like the Orthodox Church in Russia, an arm of government – a pillar of the state.  

The English won at Agincourt because of their superiority in archery and the tactics they used to implement it by destroying the French cavalry.  It was both a massacre and a brilliant tactical victory. 

But Harry has a debt to his church to repay, and he does so by slobbering all over God.  And he says it was all ‘without stratagem’ and proclaims death to any of that band of brothers to ‘boast’ of the win – having previously promised them immortality in showing off the wounds they took on Saint Crispin’s day.  So, when he has got what he wanted, Harry goes back on it all once again.  This character is a chameleon in perpetuity.

But it is worse than that for God or His church.  In his second inaugural, Abraham Lincoln said that both sides to that war read the same Bible and prayed to the same God.  ‘The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.’  That was as it must be – the Almighty was placed in a position of conflict of interests that is completely beyond human understanding. 

So it was at Agincourt.  French kings went by the style ‘Most high, most potent and most excellent Prince, by the Grace of God, King of France and of Navarre, Most Christian Majesty’.  The English kings were not yet defenders of the faith, but they, too, invoked God.  And now priests of the Orthodox Church are offering up prayers on both sides in a war which they were instrumental in starting. 

It is just revolting, is it not?  A naval chaplain, ‘the minister of Christ, tho’ receiving his stipend from Mars’, went to Billy Budd in the Darbies to comfort him before he was hanged from the yard-arm.  Their creator, Herman Melville, went into overdrive.

Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War – Mars.  As such, he is as incongruous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas.  Why then is he there?  Because he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because too he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but brute force.

That is beautifully put.  And it is part of the meditation that I draw from Henry V. 

Well, it is common to keep finding new sources of light in the plays of this English playwright as our own stories unfold.  That is why we keep going back to them.

Passing Bull 311 – IPA tops again

Even during an election campaign, you can rely on the IPA to top the field in bullshit. 

Mr Roskam’s note in the AFR says the Liberal Party is no longer a broad church.  It used to consist of those following ‘classical liberalism and conservatism.’  He does not say what he understands by those terms – or what the difference might be.  

If the two were opposed in principle, there would be tension in the party – which there surely is.  But a party that stands for everything stands for nothing.  That about sums up the Liberal Party Labor Party now.  Just look at their platforms.  There is not one iota of difference. 

That is deliberate.  Both parties know that Australians fear novelty and change.  If you say something sensible, you might frighten the horses.  That happened at the last election.  One party got sensible about tax.  The other side frightened the natives – and won the election.  No one will propose something reasonable if it is a novelty.  The result is a tragedy for the generation that cannot afford to buy a home.

And we that are old are responsible.

Mr Roskam wonders if the Liberal Party has a philosophy.  They don’t.  We don’t go for philosophy here.  He asks why we have not got smaller government.  Because Australians want all the government they can get.  We have been addicted to it since birth.  We are genetically different to the U S.  The IPA bullshit sells there – but not here.

Mr Roskam says the Liberals’commitment on one issue is ‘political, not principled’.  Are the two exclusive?  Is there no such thing as a ‘principled politician’? 

I knew a party that put principle above geeting elected.  It was the ALP.  Out of office for a generation.  Which is what the IPA would do to the Liberal Party if they had their way.

Mr Roskam looks askance at government that is merely ‘pragmatic’.  That phrase got pinned on the PM by Paul Kelly as a compliment.  It means being practical – trying to get something that works.  What is the alternative?  A philosophy?

Finally Mr Roskam says that ‘very few Liberal MPs (and even fewer Liberal branch members) believe ‘net zero’ is good policy.’

And some people wonde why politicians in general, and the IPA in particular, are on the nose.

IPA – Liberal Party – ALP – climate change

Passing Bull 310 – Trying to stay sane about the election

Rather than walk the plank, I today sent the letter below to Dr Monique Ryan. 

Apart from the matters referred to, I am convinced that we will get nowhere politically in this country until we get more women in parliaments.  They just happen to be better than man in getting together, making sense, and getting things done.


In case those assisting you missed it, the letter of mine below appeared in the AFR today – after The Age knocked it back (as is its wont).

I wish you and those like you well.  You and they are badly needed.  Our system depends on two parties both of which have failed us; and government is only as good as the opposition. 

I am in a ‘safe Labor seat’ – that is, life tenure, and not having to answer letters from constituents.

What policy does either party offer that is distinctive from its platform?

Best wishes

Geoff Gibson

Dear Editor,

Many Australians, including me, have lost faith in both major parties.  Their MPs are being challenged by people who were not selected by either party, but who have real ideas because they have had real jobs.  The hostility to these people validates their challenges.

Sitting MPs were made candidates by a tiny minority who do not represent Australians, and who are part of a machine that is now ruined and friendless.  They are supported by a shockingly rich and powerful expat who gave the world Fox News.  If voting for such people is your idea of democracy, you can spare yourself a trip to Disneyland.  You’re already there.

May I suggest people vote for people they want – not someone chosen for them by a defunct clique? 

I turn 77 this year.  I have never seen a government do more to warrant eviction from office as this mob.  They have no defence on environment or honesty.  I could not trust them to look after my grandchildren.

Yours truly

Political parties – standing for nothing – platforms – independent MPS – role of the press.

Here and there – Bismarck

The book Bismarck, A Life, by Jonathon Steinberg, (OUP, 2011) is a great read.

The author catalogues the personal failings of his subject in detail.  Professor Steinberg makes personal judgments that are ‘large’, but you can take them or leave them, because on every page there are usually two indented quotes from primary sources – which was the manner of Sir Lewis Namier – so that you can make up your own mind.

It is a most readable book – because the subject is just so bloody fascinating.  Bismarck introduced universal male suffrage; unified the nation that is now Germany; and introduced the welfare state to Europe and the world.  If you see that trifecta on another headstone, could you please let me know?

And Bismarck got fired by God’s own idiot – Kaiser Wilhelm – whose pedigree was unhappy.

In 1908, Lloyd George introduced to the House of Commons what came to be called the People’s Budget.  He said that it was ‘the business of the state’ to look after the sick.  The aristocracy was horrified.  Was the little Welshman mad?  Lloyd George and Churchill pushed this very radical measure through.  And it was radical.  It is said by some to be the start of the Welfare State in England.  The English were in large part following the example of Bismarck.

The role of Germany, and Bismarck in particular, in the introduction of what we call the Welfare State is not generally known.   In 1883 and 1889, Bismarck pushed through legislation for accident insurance for workers and then old age and disability insurance.  For the first, the German government said it had put an end ‘to all those attempts to make health insurance a private matter …and asserts the role of the state’. 

You can see there a source of the remarks of Lloyd George.  Professor Steinberg there says that ‘Bismarck as a non-liberal could do what the liberal democracies found and still find hard: to see the state as the guarantor of justice for the poor.’ 

That is still anathema in the U S.  This shows how tricky political labels are.  Bismarck and Disraeli are put up as text-book ‘conservatives.’  Both introduced universal male suffrage – each such step was said to be ‘revolutionary.’

The longer I live, the more I think most political labels are useless – at best.  The word ‘conservative’ now conveys at best a cloud – or chimera.

You can see in Bismarck some characteristics of a real political leader.  He had his own style that made people recognise him – and allowed themselves to identify with them.  He had real drive.  And judgment – good sense.  He was able to persuade others and win their support.  He could and did offend a lot of people but he also looked to be inclusive.  Head to head, he could lay on the charm.  He had nerve.  Above all, he had the moral courage to assess risk, take a decision and stand by it.

When did we see those traits on show here?

And Bismarck deserves a memorial for this remark on his opponents following the Speech from the Throne:

…these little fellows…practise their swimming on the stormy waves of phrases.

There you have our current political commentariat.   In a dozen words.

Politics – labels – ‘conservatives’.

Passing Bull 309 – On Government

In the most revolting election period known in this country, it may be as well to reflect on what good governing may look like.  This advice was given by Don Quixote to Sancho Panza on governing an island.  It mattered not that the island did not exist.

Never be guided by arbitrary law, which finds favour only with the ignorant who plume themselves on their cleverness.  Let the tears of the poor find more compassion in you, but not more justice, than the testimony of the rich.  Seek to uncover the truth amid the promises and gifts of the man of wealth as amid the sobs and pleadings of the poverty stricken.  When it is a question of equity, do not bring all the rigor of the law to bear upon the delinquent, for the fame of the stern judge is no greater than that of the merciful one.  If the rod of justice is to be bent, let it not be by the weight of the gift, but by that of mercy.  When you come to judge the case of someone who is your enemy, put aside all thoughts of the wrong he has done you and think only of the truth.  Let not passion blind you where another’s rights are concerned, for the mistakes you make will be irremediable, or only to be remedied at the expense of your good name and fortune… Abuse not by words the one upon whom punishment must be inflicted; for the pain of the punishment itself is enough without the addition of insults.  When a guilty man comes under your jurisdiction, remember that he is but a wretched creature, subject to the inclinations of our depraved human nature, and insofar as you may be able to do so without wrong to the other side, show yourself clement and merciful; for while the attributes of God are all equal, that of mercy shows brighter in our eyes than does that of justice.

Nor does it matter that the Don was as mad as a cut snake when he gave this advice.  The role of governor included that of the judge, and I know of no better statement of what that might entail.  But there are many courts which could use in neon lights the advice of the Don about bending the rod in the way of mercy – the inarticulate premise of judges except for the outright ratbags – and sparing the loser the insults – which are nothing more than the proud man’s contumely

And while I am with that author, my favourite lines apply equally to judges and to the dreadful dross of our politics now.

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.



Gore Vidal, 1984

Modern Library Edition, 1998, signed by the author, rebound.

Abraham Lincoln was born in the backblocks in a log cabin in Kentucky.  He learned his law lying on his back with his feet up a tree.  This largely self-taught lawyer practised in Illinois and rode on horseback on circuit when he slept fully clothed head to toe with opposing counsel. 

He had one supreme advantage over most of us.  He was well educated and his mind was uncluttered by computers and his young mind was unsullied by trivia.  He was brought up on the King James Bible and Shakespeare. 

Lincoln may well be the most consummate politician who has ever lived, and he may also be one of the very few in all history who was not corrupted by power.  He had, of course, no time for political theory.  It was by the force of his character that the union that we know as the United States of America was held together and then defined afresh.  Without Abraham Lincoln, our world in the West would be very different.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln left no doubt that the Union was redeeming itself in the course of the Civil War.  He said that at the start of the war, one eighth of the population were coloured slaves.  He went on with some very direct statements about religion:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and prayed to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in bringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

Lincoln then went on to say that the ‘scourge of war’ would ‘continue until all of the wealth piled up by the bondsmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with a lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword …’.   The nation that started with the Puritans was therefore redeeming itself from the sin of slavery with its own blood.  Lincoln concluded that inaugural address with the famous passage that begins:  ‘With malice toward none ….’

Less than four months before his re-inauguration, Abraham Lincoln had stated his vision for his nation at the dedication of a cemetery at the site of a three-day battle, one of the bloodiest of a very bloody war, the battle of Gettysburg.  People who have seen the TV documentary, The Civil War, may recall that the late Shelby Foote said that after Lincoln had read his address ‘in his thin piping voice,’ he was worried about it.  He said that it did not ‘scour’.  For good reason, that address is now chiselled into the Lincoln Memorial at Washington, D.C., and it is an essential part of the fabric not just of the American nation, but of western civilization.

Lincoln had a well-oiled logical machine in his mind.  He would as a matter of course build the premises of his argument into the structure of his prose.  There is just one thing to note about that process here.  He starts by referring to ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.  We know that statement was false when it was first made.  Lincoln goes on immediately to say that the Civil War is to test ‘whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure’. The Civil War was therefore being fought to make good the original declaration of equality.  It is the same redemptive vision, almost a biblical redemptive vision. The great republic would redeem its original sin with its own blood.

The book Lincoln by Gore Vidal is an historical novel that starts only when Lincoln becomes president.  It is remarkable for the grace of its style and for the reliability of its content.  It is intensely political, so it is as well to remember that Vidal came from a family with a strong political and military involvement.  He was born at West Point and served in the armed forces during World War II before taking up writing. 

When the book starts, most Lincoln’s cabinet think that he is an idiot whose election was a mistake that one or another of them is bound to correct.  Much of the book is about how they come to learn better, and much of it is told through the voices of his two young and impressionable secretaries (whose nick-names for their boss includes ‘the Tycoon.’)  The manoeuvrings involving Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase make for gripping political history.  The book carries conviction throughout, and it is what is called a page-turner, wonderful for the beach.

Early on, Seward says ‘To say what is true is to do a lot in politics.  Not that I have had much experience along those lines.’  He also said: ‘It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.’  He may have been wrong there.  During their revolution, the French produced a constitution that allowed for revolution.

When Seward questioned suspending habeas corpus, ‘the most ancient of all our liberties’, Lincoln responded:

Mr Seward, for the moment, all that matters is to keep Maryland in the Union, and there is nothing that I will not do to accomplish that.

Mr Seward, we are told, was more alarmed than amused.

There is a remarkable scene when Lincoln visits a hospital for Southern boys where the smell of flesh corrupting was overpowering.  He made the visit over the pleas and protests of his staff.

When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet-voice was muted; even intimate.  ‘I am Abraham Lincoln.’  There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of …?  Washburne [Security] had never heard a sound quite like it.  ‘I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in and for that I honor you, and for your wounds so honourably gained.  I feel no anger in my heart towards you, and trust you feel none for me.  That is why I am here.  That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship of any man among you.’

The same long sigh, like a rising wind, began; and still no one spoke.  Then a man on crutches approached the President, and in perfect silence, shook his hand.  Others same forward….and to each he murmured something that the man alone could here.

At the end, as Lincoln made his way between the beds, stopping to talk to those who could not move, half of the men were in tears, as was Washburne himself.

In the last bed by the door, a young officer turned his back on the President, who touched his shoulder, and murmured, ‘My son, we shall all be the same at the end.’  Then the President was gone.

I don’t like historical novels, because I don’t trust them, but we have here writing that is as persuasive as it is powerful.

Lincoln put his foot down hard in another constitutional crisis that would break most people.

Seward felt an involuntary shudder in his limbs.  He was also ravished by the irony of the moment.  For nearly three years, a thousand voices, including his own, had called for a Cromwell, a dictator, a despot; and in all that time, no one suspected that there had been from the beginning, a single-minded dictator in the White House, a Lord Protector of the Union by whose will alone the war had been prosecuted.  For the first time, Seward understood the nature of Lincoln’s political genius.  He had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking, timid, backwoods lawyer, given to fits of humility in the presence of all the strutting military and political peacocks that flocked about him.

That sounds just right, but Seward was not alone in underestimating the President.  The London Times said that the ceremony at Gettysburg was ‘rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln’.  The New York Times said ‘Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.’

This is a great book about a very great man, and it is one of those rarities – we feel sad and empty when it comes time to put it down.