Winston Churchill’s Great Law Givers of History

Winston Churchill’s Great Law Givers of History

Excerpt­ed from “Whom Did Churchill Regard as History’s Great­est Law-Giv­er?,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, March 2022. For the orig­i­nal text with end­notes please click here. To sub­scribe to posts by the Hills­dale Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address remains private.

Henry II, Common Law and Trial by Jury 

Among the Eng­lish, Churchill’s acco­lade “Law-Giv­er” fell first on King Hen­ry II (reigned 1154-1189). There were “greater sol­dier-kings and sub­tler diplo­ma­tists,” Churchill wrote, but no man has left a deep­er mark upon our laws and insti­tu­tions…. his fame will live with the Eng­lish Con­sti­tu­tion and the Eng­lish Com­mon Law.”

England’s unwrit­ten Con­sti­tu­tion, Churchill con­tin­ued, vague­ly defined “the lim­its of the King’s tra­di­tion­al rights…. This opened a shrewd line of advance.” The result was “a star­tling new procedure—trial by jury….

Hen­ry did not invent the jury; he put it to a new pur­pose [and] turned to reg­u­lar use in the courts an instru­ment which so far had only been used for admin­is­tra­tive purposes….

This slow but con­tin­u­ous growth of what is pop­u­lar­ly known as “case law” ulti­mate­ly achieved much the same free­doms and rights for the indi­vid­ual as are enshrined in oth­er coun­tries by writ­ten instru­ments such as the Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Man and the spa­cious and splen­did pro­vi­sions of the Amer­i­can Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence.  

Edward I: “Conception of the State” 

Churchill’s next great Eng­lish Law Giv­er was King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307), who, “destroyed the absolute con­trol of the barons over their ten­ants…. That path was found between despo­tism and anar­chy which Eng­land has made char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly her own. The prime impulse along this nar­row but sure way she owes to Edward I, the great­est law-giv­er since Hen­ry II….

Moses: “Leader of a People”  

For Churchill, the great­est of all Law Givers lived many cen­turies before those Eng­lish Kings:  

“And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. In all the signs and the won­ders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his ser­vants, and to all his land, and in all that mighty hand, and in all the great ter­ror which Moses shewed in the sight of all Israel.” 

[Moses] was the great­est of the prophets, who spoke in per­son to the God of Israel; he was the nation­al hero who led the Cho­sen Peo­ple out of the land of bondage, through the per­ils of the wilder­ness, and brought them to the very thresh­old of the Promised Land,,,, Tra­di­tion last­ly ascribed to him the author­ship of the whole Pen­ta­teuch, and the mys­tery that sur­round­ed his death added to his prestige.

Churchill’s view nev­er altered. In his last years, he had a vis­it from David Ben-Guri­on, and they debat­ed who was the great­est prophet. Ben-Guri­on argued for Jesus, Churchill for Moses. Sir Winston’s pri­vate sec­re­tary was the only audi­ence; he declared the result a tie. (This must go down as one of the great unrecord­ed conversations.)

One thought on “Winston Churchill’s Great Law Givers of History

  1. Thank you once again for the infor­ma­tion you share…..it both enlight­en­ing and thoughtful…..I am glad the Ben Guri­on debate was a scored a tie. Please keep me on your list…I so enjoy the hid­den qual­i­ties of a great man and his contemporaries….regards, Dale Garell

    Thanks for the kind words, always hard to come by. If you sub­scribed (using the right­hand pan­el “sub­scribe and fol­low”) you will con­tin­ue until you take your­self off. You may also like to sub­scribe to Hills­dale, for the unabridi­ged edi­tion of posts like this one: Go to https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enig­ma. —RML

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