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Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today.

Scott Gordon, Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. x + 395 pp. $59.95. ISBN: 0-674-16987-5.

James Muldoon, Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800-1800

New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. viii + 208 pp. $65. ISBN: 0-312-22226-2.

The two books considered in this review have much in common. Contrary to the repeated complaint that most academic work is narrow and antiquarian, both books tackle big subjects over vast expanses of time. Both combine political history with the history of political thought, and display an impressive range of reading. Both are clearly and sometimes aggressively written. And, both have contemporary relevance. The power of empires and the possibility of governmental tyranny remain prominent topics in public discourse. The collapse of the "evil empire," and the familiar mantras of conservative thought, such as "the state is bloated and unmanageable," or "government is not the solution; it's the problem," are recent enough to resonate with most readers. But while these books possess similar virtues, both, unfortunately, have similar problems.

James Muldoon's Empire and Order considers the concept of empire in Europe from roughly 800 to 1800. Muldoon begins with an assessment of earlier work on the concept of empire and finds it inadequate. Most scholars, according to Muldoon, regard medieval monarchies as polyglot conglomerations of lands, privileges, and rights competing with the church and great nobilities for power. At the same time, Muldoon thinks that most scholars incorrectly view the work of Machiavelli and Bodin in the sixteenth century and the statebuilding of Henry VIII and Francis I as the critical stage in the passage from the ramshackle medieval state to a more efficient early modern sovereign state. For conventional scholarship, the state emerges at the same time that Europe begins to develop overseas empires. Hence, according to Muldoon, the medieval antecedents of state and empire have received insufficient attention from scholars.

To remedy this defect, Muldoon devotes considerable attention to analysis of the medieval state and to medieval concepts of empire, also contending that earlier writers have focused too much on writers and theorists, rather than on the lawyers who often had more profound and learned things to say. Muldoon locates and explicates eight different concepts of empire that flourished in the Middle Ages. These concepts include Charlemagne's ideas about the Carolingian empire, the revival of Roman law in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the imperial ideas of the medieval German emperors, the Roman notion of imperium, Pope Innocent III's ideas of sovereignty, Dante's challenge to the papacy in De Monarchia, the series of empires referred to by the prophet Daniel as part of God's providential plan for humankind, and to the tyrannical governments that destroyed the Roman republic.

Muldoon's discussion of the various medieval ideas of empire is interesting and valuable, but the choice of a medieval versus modern theoretical framework for the book is misleading. It came as a surprise to this reviewer that scholars think the modern state has few antecedents before the Renaissance. Who, among recent scholars, thinks thus? There is a vast literature, from the great Maitland in the nineteenth century to Haskins and Strayer in the mid-twentieth, and more recently by Clanchy, Kaueper, and many others, on the emergence of efficient and viable bureaucratic states in medieval England and France.

Moreover, when writers cover as much time and geographical range as Muldoon, they must be aware that they expose themselves to certain kinds of specialist criticisms. The most recurring of these criticisms is bibliographic. The sheer volume of writing which must be mastered to write a book on concepts of empire from 800 to 1800 is breathtaking. A scholar who writes a book covering such an expanse of time and place can probably be forgiven certain lapses in mastery of the secondary literature. But several of Muldoon's lapses are quite serious. Someone writing on early Tudor concepts of empire and state need not accept, but must mention and give consideration to Geoffrey Elton's The Tudor Revolution in Government and the accompanying literature, by Elton and others, about England as an empire. It was after all Elton who first drew attention to the significance of the passage in the Act of Supremacy in which Henry, and probably Thomas Cromwell, declared that England was an empire. At the same time, recent discu ssions on the nature of the early modern "British state," and J. H. Elliott's concept of the early modern "composite state" would have been useful correctives to Muldoon's notion that all scholars believe that the early modern state is different than the medieval polyglot state.

Similar virtues and problems appear in Scott Gordon's Controlling the State. He, too, tackles a big subject, tracing the history of constitutionalism and advancing the thesis that the emergence of European states in which political power was significantly distributed among competing institutions antedates feudalism and capitalism. According to Gordon, realization of the need to control the exercise of state power and the creation of instruments for that purpose are evident in the political systems of fifth-century Athens and in Republican Rome, but were inconsistent, limited, and episodic. Vaulting ahead in time, Gordon sees the early modern period as critical to the emergence of what he calls "countervaillance" theory, by which citizens develop the means, usually constitutional, to protect themselves from the power of the state. While Renaissance Florence and the Dutch Republic had developed systems of countervaillance, the theory and practice of constitutionalism was most forcibly revived in conflict betwe en king and Parliament in the early Stuart era, and it has since developed into the modern concept of constitutional democracy.

Like Concepts of Empire, Controlling the State is extensively researched and Olympian in its scope. Gordon, like Muldoon, has read an immense amount of literature. But, also like Muldoon, Gordon generates a great sense of heat, but less light. It is hard to tell what Gordon has actually discovered when he asserts that the search for a constitutional political order is as old as ancient Athens or that it emerged most strongly in Stuart England. Who thinks that ancient precedents are not important? Certainly the seventeenth-century Englishmen who cited them did. Or, who thinks that Stuart England was not important in the development of constitutionalism?

There are numerous other curiosities in Controlling the State. Too often points about individual thinkers are quoted from works by modern analysts rather than from original texts. More seriously, after a discussion of countervaillance in Periclean Athens and Rome, the narrative leaps ahead more than a millennium to the Council of Constance in the fifteenth century and then to the Huguenot resistance theorists of the sixteenth century. This is a surprising leap since it largely omits medieval contributions of royal councils and representative bodies as instruments for the restraint of government. The absence of a discussion of the English Parliament along with the French Estates General in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is particularly distressing, since these are institutions central to Gordon's basic theme. More than a hundred pages after the section on the Council of Constance and resistance theories, there are a couple of paragraphs on the English medieval parliament, but there is no background or context, no discussion of how or why it developed, and only the briefest mention of the roles it acquired. Medieval representative bodies were certainly limited and hardly democratic, but they did lay permanent foundations, and seventeenth-century parliaments were not democratic either. It would also seem to me that here and elsewhere control of financial affairs, acquired by the House of the Commons during the fourteenth century, would be critical to understanding the emergence of constitutionalism. Moreover, if the early Stuart parliaments are the key point in Gordon's argument about the development of countervaillance theory, he should use the best available literature on them. He cites several good, older works, such as Clayton Roberts' The Growth of Responsible Government in Stuart England, but surely the works, particularly on the 1620s, by Conrad Russell, Derek Hirst, and Tom Cogswell provide more discerning guides. Shockingly, there is no mention of Johann Sommerville's remarkable Politics and Ideolo gy in England, 1603-1640, which again has much to say on Gordon's central themes.

In conclusion, Muldoon and Gordon deserve our applause for tackling big subjects and for their erudition. But, while both deserve applause, neither is wholly successful.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:PALMER, WILLIAM
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Words:1392
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