Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Oldest Country

[From theMEDIEV-L list 6/20/06,

Lynne Puckett wrote:

Another quote, that may bear upon the way U.S. people think about history: "To Americans 100 years is a long time and to Europeans 100 miles is a great distance." - Unk

I think this is true, in a sense (if one excludes Russia from Europe), but I have to say that in terms of the "political present", Americans have a much lengthier sense than the British.

While one might cite Churchill or Attlee (more likely Beveridge), Harold Wilson, or Margaret Thatcher in a political discussion in modern Britain, I don't think anyone would cite as authoritative the opinions of Baldwin or Asquith, never mind the Duke of Wellington or Pitt the Younger. Occasionally, I suppose, the opinions of past political thinkers might be cited, but not without the awareness of a vast difference between when Locke, Smith, and co. lived and the present.

But American political discussion - this in a modern industrial continental world power - is obsessed with the opinions and ideal of rural politicians of the late 18th- and 19th- centuries, and such ideas are frequently (even if partially or anachronistically understood) put forward as positive support for a position. In a sense the American "political present" stretches well over 200 years, while in Britain it is 60 years at the most.

A comparable phenomenon is the American insistence that the United States is a young country. In fact, there are good grounds for considering it the oldest in the world. Every other part of the world has been conquered or gone through a revolution of some kind which has meant that the modern state occupying any given territory is less old than the USA. I suppose the UK might be considered older, but a) the current "United Kingdom" dates from 1801 (or perhaps 1927 when "UKGBNI" became the name of the state), and b) (more importantly), the series of constitutional, legal/judicial, and administrative reforms of the 19th century created a very different constitution. At the very least, the United States, since 1787, is the oldest state in a continuous constitutional form.


James R said...

Wow! What an interesting viewpoint!
Seeing America as an "old" country (despite our lack of medieval structures) is very different than most historians. Gives you a small burst of nationalistic pride, it does!

Steve Muhlberger said...

I'd say 1789 -- when the constitution really went into effect, not 1787 when it was written and the ratification process began.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Sometimes people date the current British constitution to 1689, which I think is baloney.

But what date is appropriate?

Paul Halsall said...

Ok, 1789 then!

As to the British practical constitution, I'd say that (like the US one) it is always evolving - in the powers of the Prime Minster's office for example, or in the fairly recent creation of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. In reality I think the crucial periods are 1832-1887 (the fifty year period which saw the reform and expansion of the franchise, and the extensive reconstruction of the legal system), along with the establishment of the supremacy of the House of Commons in 1911.

Anonymous said...

The republic o San Marino was founded in 301, it's current constitution went into effect in 1600.
There where changes to the constitution, but the US constitution was also changed multiple times.
It was last occupied by a foreign power from 10/17/1739 to 2/5/1740.
San Marino's borders changed little in it's more than 17 centuries of existence.
It can be said that it's really hard to find "the oldest country of the world" because of different definitions, e.g. unchanged borders, form of government, being occupied by foreign countries etc...