Robinocracy Redux?

No, this is not about the swarms, nay herds, of robins currently descending on my town. It’s about a flavour of politics that may have contributed to the American Revolution and the structure of the Constitution. Bernard Bailyn’s first book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, described the ideas floathing in the air during the 30 years or so before 1776. One of the debates going on in Britain, leading to large numbers of pamphlets and writings, centered on the power and position of the Prime Minister and his relationship with patronage. Robert Walpole came under special criticism, and Robin is a nick-name for Robert. Those unhappy with his administration’s tailored largess and undue influence called it a Robinocracy, and demanded a return to the old balance of powers. Does this sound familiar?

Robert Walpole (1676-1745) served as prime minister during one of the more turbulent times in English political and parliamentary history. He was prime minister for 20 years, under Kings George the First and Second. He brought the Whigs into a secure place of political power, and split the party in the process.  However, his enemies accused him of using power and influence to get his supporters appointed to government posts and interfering with the traditional three-legged stool of English government: monarch, nobility, and the people. He was nicknamed “Cock Robin” (the source of the nursery rhyme) and those opposed to his style of government termed it a Robinocracy.

The problem with the Robinocracy, according to Walpole’s enemies in the so-called Country Whig party, was he used money both to distribute political power and to obtain it. He also accepted funds from people outside the traditional system and granted them places in his ministries and privileges. Walpole then used those funds to further entrench himself and his supporters, creating a layer between those who should have had power (Parliament, the gentry, aka the people) and the rulers, keeping the rulers from addressing the interests of the people and corrupting the political process by unbalancing the traditional three-legs of government.

Voices from both the modern left and right in the US are starting to point out that an apparent Robinocracy has developed in the US. Those corporations and organizations with certain political and financial interests have used their power, and large amounts of money, to unduly influence the federal government, to the point that two of the three branches are unable/unwilling to do their duty. The people are no longer represented: only the big corporations/Wall Street/foreign interests/shadow organizations of billionaires have any voice in government.

Bernard Bailyn used pamphlets that had been circulating among the “Real Whigs” to argue that they played a role in the formulation of the colonists arguments against George III’s policies. The ministers had come between the people, who were the true source of royal power, and the king. Parliament had become corrupt, rotted by money and rent-seeking, and the First Minister was using licenses and special perks and appointments to reward his supporters and weaken the power that should have rested in Parliament. The Real Whigs called for a return to the ancient balance of powers and warned that power vested too closely in a small group led to corruption and people trying to subvert government for their own enrichment. Political power must, according to the Country Whig writers, be spread out and viewed warily, as a source of potential corruption and abuse. Sound familiar?

Since Bailyn’s book was published, historians have been arguing just how much the Real Whigs had on the colonies. We can’t be certain who read their pamphlets, and how much the ideas might have been discussed among the people who went on to lead and support the Revolution. As R.R. Palmer showed in his books about the age of democratic revolution, the 1700s were rife with people trying to toss out monarchies and autocrats in favor of republics and democracies. There was certainly something in the air, and it is probable that economic shifts in production and consumption, the ending of Britain’s policy of benign neglect and too-low taxation, the ideas of the Real Whigs, and local complaints within the individual colonies fed into each other to start the murmurs that became grumbles that ended in roars and shots.

But, alas, the tendencies and traditions of the Robinocracy are always with us.

 

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