The English word “king” is derived from the Old English cyning, which in turn is derived from the Germanic stem cyn, meaning “kind” or “people”, and cognate with the word “kin”, the German könig, and the Latin gens (this last is related to “generate” and “gentile”). The suffix ‑ing means “representative or exemplar of”. Thus the original sense of the word would have been “he who represents the people”. The king stood as an exemplar of his kind, the leading avatar of his kindred.
The first king of England is considered to be Alfred the Great, during whose ninth-century reign the Anglo-Saxon regions of England united for the first time, in defense against the Danes. One of the characteristic strengths of the English was their unusual ability to unite against a common threat, something which their Celtic neighbors in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland found hard to do.
But if the English found unity against their enemies, they remained an individualistic people with a suspicion of central authority. From the time of the Magna Carta, through the early parliaments and the height of the British Empire, England was a constitutional monarchy in which restraints were placed on the power of the king by both law and custom. It is through this tradition, with its emphasis on the freeborn yeoman and the common law, that parliamentary democracy came into the world, the great gift of the English to Western civilization.
The English carried the tradition of their “ancient liberties” to the New World, and in the United States, with the monarchy removed, the first constitutional republic was formed. However, in America, the culture of the English was mixed and merged with another one, that of the Celts.
In his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America , James Webb describes the effect on America of the great Celtic migrations. After the initial English settlements, waves of Scots and Irish came to the English colonies in North America, possibly comprising more than half of the influx of new arrivals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Irish were fleeing oppression, the Scots were fleeing marginalization, and all were fleeing poverty. They brought with them a fierce individualism, a warrior spirit, and a deep-seated distrust of all authority. They spread through the Appalachians and later moved west, bearing a strong religious sense and an ethic of hardy self-reliance that has become a major thread in the American cultural fabric.
The marriage of the English system of law and government with the temperament of the Celts has produced the modern American character. It gives us on the one hand a genius for organization and an impetus to unity against outside threats, while on the other hand we are fractious, doubtful of authority, and ready to fight when confronted.
So, if it were possible to have a king of this hybrid race, who would it be? He would have to represent us, to be one of our kind. He must be an individualist, with a fighting spirit and a fierce loyalty to his own people. He would have a rock-solid religious faith, one that can withstand the challenges and pitfalls that life places before him. He would believe in the rights inherent in a free citizen, as opposed to the dictates of the state. And he would stand as a pillar of strength against all threats to his kin.
Thus, if America could have a king, it would be George W. Bush, for surely he represents us. People who hate him do so for that reason: he holds up a mirror to reveal the American character, and they do not like what they see. Perhaps they want an America that is more nuanced, more sophisticated, more erudite and European. But that is not who we are; we are simple folk with an ingenuous open-handedness, a nation of hayseeds and rubes who stormed the beaches of Normandy, raised the flag at Iwo Jima, and made the march up to Baghdad, a fierce, indomitable, and untiring folk. President Bush is the exemplar of our kind, the one who best represents the qualities which make us what we are.
Baron, that is beautiful and true.
I like it very much.
We were talking about Webb’s book and Albion’s Seed at gnxp on the open thread, but i went to look and it’s scrolled off. The consensus is we are indebted to our scots/irish ancestry for a lot of our genes.
If Webb is right, you don’t have to have the genetic material — the Scots-Irish tendency spreads culturally. Fortunately for me, I have Scots on my mother’s side.
This is an excellent post. I have always contended that America is, however unconsciously, a profoundly monarchist country. Public opinion ascribes quasi-monarchial powers to the Presidents, despite the very real constitutional limitations inherent in the office, and the circumscription of Presidential powers by both court decision and the statute book.
Recall that so much of the American Revolution, at least among elites, was about securing to Americans the “rights of Englishmen” as the colonial leaders understood them. When it came time to draw up a constitution, the President acquired many of the powers of the English kings — with a dash of Roman republicanism thrown in — and Republican Rome was far closer to an oligarchial monarchy than it was a republic.
I think you’re right. That’s probably why we have such a strong Presidency.
While I might quibble with the characterization of Republican Rome as being closer to an ‘oligarchic monarchy’ (maybe, in the late republic), I think that idea of the “President as King” is right on. The difference being, and here the founders got it right and managed to make it stick, is that we elect the king, and not for life. Its a solving of the succession issue that has so bedeviled human governments for, well, ever.
Eric — I think your characterization of Rome is about right. And America seems to love a monarch — look at how goo-goo people get over the British royals. Do you think it’s because we’ve gone without for more than 200 years? Absence makes the heart grow fonder…
No, I do not think its a matter of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ (remember, the English don’t have a great deal of compunction about killing their kings if it comes to that). Rather, I’ll hazard that its a much more systemic, even ‘hard-wired’ thing in human societies, and maybe even people themselves. Typically, there is a chief executive of some sort, (don’t everyone start quoting the inevitable exceptions at me), and pretty much that’s how people end up organizing themselves.
Eric — BTW, is that part of a Camel album cover on your profile “photo”?
Your notion that the need for a leader is ‘hard-wired’–at least that’s how I’m reading your comment–is spot on. It’s in there all right, along with fear of Others and the deep need for those we see as Non-Other, i.e., those whom we can trust. Human beings are also hard-wired to experience shame, an affect that lies at the base of much of our learned behavior.
It has been postulated that an evolution to the “if-you-meet-the-Buddha-on-the-road,-kill-him” kind of individualism is something to strive for. I’m not so sure. OTOH, the sucking need our culture seems to have for celebrities (people who are famous for being famous)is a degradation of a noble impulse. At least it seems so to me.
This is probably a riff on something from Paul’s Epistles.
Dymphna — I think there is a thirst for true nobility, which has been all but eliminated from modernity. We have deconstructed our heroes, so that “heroism” hardly exists without ironic quotes. All that is left is celebrity, and actors who can simulate the characteristics we long for (e.g. Martin Sheen as the President in “West Wing”) are the only vessels left into which our longing can be poured.
Time was the king was the guy with the sturdiest legs and the greatest stamina, who could hack off the head of any rival without losing his own. The folk projected onto him the characteristics of heroic behavior, and he lived up to them. But no more.
Time was the king was the guy with the sturdiest legs and the greatest stamina, who could hack off the head of any rival without losing his own.
Well, there are exceptions and misdirections to that. Remember the accidents and misfortunes that led to the War of Roses. The guy who “won” was John of Gaunt, right? Wasn’t he the one left standing after the Black Plague?
The folk projected onto him the characteristics of heroic behavior, and he lived up to them. But no more.
Hmmm. Sometimes he lived up to his projections. And sometimes the folk understood him all too well and he went by names like “The Unready”–those Folk are astute in the multitude. That’s why, in a fair game, the person who wins is the person who should win. As in Ukraine. Now there’s a good example of the understanding of the folk and the miracle of group power.
D — I’m afraid you misread my imagined time period. The cyning was archetyped in the days of the Anglo-Saxon migrations to England, 5th to 8th centuries, the days of the moot and the meadhall. In those times it was indeed the doughty fighter who earned the title through fierceness, pluck, and loyalty to his kin.
By the time Ethelred received his bad advice, a larger and partially urbanized polity was in place, one more “modern” in the sense that scheming, trickery, and PR skills counted for at least as much as the traditional martial skills.
traditional martial skills.
oops. At first I read that as ‘traditional marital skills.’ Never mind.
There is also this to consider: long before any other polity, the English began evolving a commonweal which served to strenghten themselves and to curb the worst excesses of monarchy. It is cultural genius and their dissidents managed to maintain the seed of freedom even as they broke away. Perhaps the universal iconic image of liberty should be not our Constitution but the Magna Carta. What is even more amazing is that an original copy still exists.
Guess this makes me an Anglophile. Please don’t tell the family.
happy new year. <:>
And the same to you! 🙂
Baron: err..yes, that is the front of a Camel album. (or at least that’s what the site I swiped the thing from says it is). I could not find a decent Spud-boy picture, so one has to make do.
I do wonder about, as Dymphoma mentions, this overeaching need for ‘celebrity’, and I can only really echo those thoughts. Such little bits of culture like Bruce Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” or even Achilles in the Iliad highlight the desire for fame. Now, I think Fame itself is interesting, as it can be quite fleeting (in the case of popular singers) or damn near eternal, in the case of Achilles.
I am not so sure that the ‘last guy standing’ characterization of those early Anglo-Saxons totally holds up. The Comitatus expected stuff out of the King, and if he couldn’t deliver, well, another would do. It is, I think a variation on the Client/Patron arrangement in the Roman world, although the pattern is noticible in other places and times.
Eric — remember that I was talking about very early Anglo-Saxon times. The cyning was basically a tribal strongman, carrying the martial virtues of his folk and dependent upon both physical and interpersonal skills to keep his position.
Don’t forget the stuff.Those early times are what I’m referring to was well. The gift giving ascpect of the war-chief, king, whatever is, I think, pretty consistent.
Those commercials with all the Huns yelling “What’s in yer wallet?” are probably not far off the mark. Heh.