Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses.”
When I was editorial page editor at The State, I would from time to time go in to work of a morning all fired up to do something really out there, something that, to a less caffeinated person, might seem terribly imprudent, something that would not be good for the newspaper and its credibility in the long run.
And my colleagues — a smart, sober, sensible crew if ever there was one — would talk me down in the morning meeting. They’d grab ‘hold of my coattails and pull, steadily and relentlessly, until they’d dragged me back from the precipice. They were all like, Put the idea down and step back, slowly…
I sort of counted on them to do that. Because ultimately I’m a conservative sort of guy, even though I’d get these wild impulses from time to time.
I don’t have them to do that for me any more. But I have y’all.
If you’ll recall, I came in all charged up on the morning of Dec. 7 (an infamous date for following ill-considered impulses — just ask Admiral Yamamoto), and wrote “Electors, your nation needs you to be ‘unfaithful’.”
Filling the roles of editorial board members, y’all immediately started calmly talking me down. As Phillip wrote in soothing tones, “As much as I fear the coming Trump Presidency, though, this would be a terrible idea,” and went on to explain why. Dave Crockett, saying, “I have to side with Phillip on this one,” poured additional oil on the troubled waters.
And I immediately realized they were right, admitting, “Everything you say makes perfect practical sense.” And I thanked them, in my way.
In any case, off the blog (you’re either on the blog or you’re off the blog), out there in Meat World, the electors met yesterday and were meek and mild, and everything Alexander Hamilton did not intend them to be. In any case, no revolution. And it’s probably just as well, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment.
But to be clear, I wasn’t being a revolutionary. I was being, if anything, reactionary. I wanted to go back to the original spirit (since the original letter is no longer operative) of the Electoral College, in which the electors served as a guarantee that no gross incompetent under the sway of a foreign potentate — ahem — would become our president. I was invoking Hamilton’s sort of conservatism, extolling his mechanism for preventing something imprudent from happening. (I’m so much that way that, as I’ve confessed here in the past, while I fervently embrace the corniest, most cliched sort of patriotism, I often worry that had I been alive in 1775, I might, just might, have been, well… a Tory. I would have had a strong aversion against taking up arms against the duly constituted authority, especially over something as absurd as taxes. Shooting at my lord the King’s soldiers would have seemed to me to be tearing at the fundamental fabric of civilization. I’m talking about before the Declaration. After that, I might have been OK with it — Take that, jolly lobster!)
Anyway, though, y’all were right and I was wrong, and it’s just as well that most of the electors yesterday were too timid to do the right thing — I mean, to cause trouble.
And I’m more certain of that now than when y’all talked me down a couple of weeks ago. That’s because of two things I’ve spent a lot of time on recently — watching TV and working on my family tree.
First, there’s the TV watching… I’ve been enjoying “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” on PBS. It’s a three-part production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” parts I and II, and “Richard III.” And it’s pretty great so far (still awaiting that third part).
But boy, does it make you glad you didn’t live in those parlous times. Just to give you an idea of the political instability and its murderous consequences, so far:
- King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster, an unstable weakling (but a gentle soul), is trying in his own feckless way to hang onto the crown that his father — the “Band of Brothers” speech guy (see how all my posts connect up?) — left him when he was only 9 months old. He marries the French noblewoman Margaret, which looks like a good match but isn’t.
- The Duke of York — father of, among others, Richard III — asserts that he should be king, and a lot of nobles decide he’s right and line up behind him. After all, he is a Plantagenet, and they held the crown much longer than these upstart Lancastrians.
- There’s a terrible battle in which Somerset’s head is cut off by the York faction, which is just as well because he was fooling around with Margaret behind the King’s back. (He’s played by the guy who played the guy who was fooling around with Princess Margaret in “The Crown,” so I guess he’s typecast.) York and his posse have a great time tossing the head around and cracking jokes.
- The followers of York rush to Westminster, where the King later arrives to find York literally sitting on his throne. The King is like, “Get off my chair!” and York is like “Make me!”
- At this moment, Exeter, who’s always been one of the King’s main guys, says You know what? Maybe York does have a greater claim to the throne. And the King’s like, “What?”
- The King offers a deal: If they’ll let him remain king while he lives, he’ll give up the crown on behalf of his descendants, letting York and his sons succeed him.
- Some of the nobles tell the King he’s a loser and march off to tell Queen Margaret.
- Margaret, who has a young son she was counting on being king, essentially reacts like, WTF!
- She goes out and leads her own army against York, and cuts his head off, and puts it on a pike.
- Then things swing back the other way, and… well, suffice to say York’s is not the last head to be used as a decoration.
Anyway, that’s Henry VI. The first two parts anyway, and part of the third. (I didn’t finish part 3 until after writing this.)
Then there’s the genealogy thing…
Over the weekend, I learned that I’m possibly descended from Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke — the guy who pretty much started the Norman conquest of Ireland in the 12th century. (And even if I’m not related to him at all, the moral of this story still stands.)
This caused some Henry-and-Margaret-style tension at my house, for this reason: My wife’s maiden name is Phelan. The original Gaelic name is Ó Fialáin. The Ó Fialáins were the head honchos in County Waterford until a certain Norman lord came along and conquered and trashed their city.
The particular Norman lord who did that was, you guessed it, my great-granddaddy “Strongbow.” If he is my great-granddaddy — and even it he’s not, he’s the guy.
Strongbow was driven to this by circumstances. He had inherited the Pembroke earldom and lands from his father Gilbert, also called “Strongbow.” But Henry II — one of those Plantagenets — took them away from him because my ancestor had sided with King Stephen of England in a bloody dispute — a war, not to put too fine a point on it — against Henry’s mother, the Empress Matilda, over who would be monarch of England.
Thus dispossessed, Strongbow went over and did a deal with the Irish King of Leinster, who was having problems of his own, to go together and take Waterford. Which they did. Henry II, eager that these new Irish properties become the crown’s, did a deal with Strongbow in which he got his old title and property back. Which was good for him, but not so great for my wife’s folks in Waterford.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
For so much of human history, no one had much of a sense of loyalty to a country, much less to a system of laws. They couldn’t even be relied on to be loyal to a certain lord for long. Everybody was always looking for the main chance, ready to kill to gain advantage even temporarily.
Our 240-year history, our country of laws and not of men, is a blessed hiatus from all that. We may descend into barbarism yet — and yes, the election of a man who shows little respect for the rule of law is not a good omen — but so far the Constitution has held.
So maybe it’s safest not to tear at the fabric, even a little — even if, like Exeter, we can say maybe the law is on our side. Seeing York’s point of view and encouraging him in his claim did no one, including York, any good. Getting all legalistic in invoking Hamilton’s original intent could have wreaked a great deal of havoc as well…
The earldom of Pembroke came with this cool castle, so you can see why Strongbow wanted it back.