Friday, 5 August 2011

The Case for History

Lorianne Updike Toler

The Arab Spring has brought about the opportunity to implement Arab democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.  In setting up their new governments and constitutions, most Muslim Arabs are looking on Western influence and help with disdain.

While I am inspired by their independent zeal and believe that their constitutions will be stronger because of it, in their haste to go it alone, Arabs may be overlooking a piece of the "West" that is as much their inheritance as anyone else's. 

I speak of the political philosophy, democratic republics, and history of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.  The Greeks modeled democracies, or direct participation in government by the people; the Romans modeled republican government, or representative participation in government by the people.  These traditions the East preserved, sometimes through translation into Arabic.

These Eastern-preserved ideas were captured and discussed as part of a broad European Enlightenment, particularly by Montesquieu in his The Spirit of the Laws in 1750.  In particular, Montesquieu, a Frenchman, became famous for his praise of the English constitution (or form of government) in Spirit of the Laws

Montesquieu had great impact on Sir William Blackstone, who discussed Spirit of the Laws throughout his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in 1765-9.  Blackstone's Commentaries, though not very well received in England, became the primary legal text and actual law (in that it summarized the inherited Common Law of England) in the fledgling United States where there was no constitutional or statutory law.  Too, both treatises were studied by those who participated in the constitutional convention, and particularly Montesquieu was discussed and referenced in the convention's debates.  James Wilson, who wrote more than one draft of the Constitution, relied upon or used Blackstone's Commentaries as a foil for his own writing and pulling together of various documents in compiling text for the Constitution, explained in his Lectures on Law.

A more direct connection between ancient models of government and the frame for the U.S. Constitution may be found in James Madison's studies of historical republics and confederacies in the months leading up to the convention.

The forms of government incorporated in the U.S. Constitution, and those found in its parent government in Great Britain, have been modeled the world over, where three branches of government, separation of powers, and independent judiciaries are all considered important aspects of democracy.

In fact, these same forms and concepts are being discussed by Arabs in Egypt and Tunisia, Morocco and Bahrain.  You cannot divorce democracy or republicanism from its history, and setting up the best democracies and democratic republics should always include canvassing successful contemporary and historical models in other countries.  The same is true for in-process Arab democracies as anywhere else. 

After all, the beginnings of democracy could be claimed as much by the Middle East as by the West.  

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