Politics As Usual

It was on this day, 17 November in 1603, that Elizabethan politician, adventurer, explorer, and colonizer Sir Walter Raleigh went on trial for treason in the great hall of Winchester castle. The event is notable in that Raleigh was convicted and sentenced to death after a rather trumped up “show trial” in which little was proven even by the rather lax standards of Elizabethan/Jacobean political prosecutions. (The Tudors were very fond of making a public display of a treason trial under the guise of which they were able to eliminate political enemies. It is a pattern familiar to students of the Soviet Union in more modern times. The fact that little or no evidence might be brought into the case little mattered to the foregone conviction.)

Raleigh was a bit of a scamp and a rascal, and he had made many enemies over the years, including Queen Elizabeth herself. Though he eventually returned himself to her good graces, after her death in early 1603, his political enemies convinced the new King James to move forward with the prosecution.

James – a bit less sanguinary than his Tudor cousins – did not execute Raleigh’s sentence after the trial, but left him imprisoned in the Tower of London for the next 13 years, finally releasing him to lead an expedition to South America where he ran afoul of Spanish forces. When Raleigh return to England, the Spanish ambassador demanded that King James finally execute Raleigh’s death sentence. And so it was done.

Raleigh had served King and Country and his own interests with varying degrees of success during his 65 or so years. He founded the first English colonies in North America, unsuccessfully, and he fought for England against her great enemy, Spain. He also contributed to the great outpouring of Literary creativity during the “Golden Age of English Literature,” penning volumes of prose and some of the marvelous age’s most outstanding poetry, notably his famous reply to Marlowe’s “Shepard.”

Raleigh was also a famous wit and raconteur. At his execution he is said to have observed that the axe was “a sharp medicine but a cure for all disease.”

I am particularly fond of a line taken from the transcript of his trial. At that time the English language was evolving away from the “familiar” form of the second person pronoun. Today we use “you” for both an individual whom we are addressing or a group of people. But it was not always so. As do most other European languages to this day, English had a singular and plural form of the second person pronoun. And also in keeping with the formal use of other European tongues, the plural form was also considered the more respectful and polite form. Thus, at the start of the Elizabethan age, one would use “thou” when addressing an individual, and “you” when addressing a group. But “you” would also be employed when addressing one’s social superior, such as a servant to his master, or a boy to his father. By 1600 or so, it had become distinctly disrespectful to address great men with the “familiar” “thou” form, and one always employed “you.” (Language experiences inflation: the finer, fancier form eventually drives out the plainer usage so that today thee and thou only survive for addressing God almighty – interestingly enough – and even that is now rare.)

The line of Raleigh’s that I like so well?

The prosecutor had addressed Sir Walter as “thou.” In a response that is at once amusing and illustrative of the protean mutability of the English language, Raleigh hotly replied:

“THOU durst thou me?! I thou thee, thou dog!”

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Nil homine terra peius ingrato creat. — Ausonius

(The world creates nothing worse than an ungrateful person.)

U.S.A. Election Day 2012

For the United States of America, tomorrow is a national Election Day. It is election day in across all of the United States, from Nome, Alaska to Key West, Florida; people will go to the polls in Honolulu, Hawaii, Chula Vista, California, and Eastport, Maine, and here in my home of Flower Mound, Texas. Because of our system of a College of Electors, votes in some states have far more impact than votes in others, a legacy of the 18th Century compromise that led to the adoption of our present Constitution. Nevertheless, voting matters. As is the case with every Election Day, it represents an occasion to have important impact upon the future, and there is so much more at stake than just the immensely high-profile presidential race. Having that impact, of course, is only available to those who vote.

While the United States was still in the throes of the ferocious fighting of the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt took to the radio on 5 October 1944 to address a nation about the need and the obligation to vote:

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do that is by not voting at all.

The continuing health and vigor of our democratic system depends upon the public spirit and devotion of its citizens which find expression in the ballot box.

Every man and every woman in this nation, regardless of party, who have the right to register and to vote, and the opportunity to register and to vote, have also the sacred obligation to register and to vote. For the free and secret ballot is the real keystone of our American constitutional system.

The American Government has survived and prospered for more than a century and a half, and it is now at the highest peak of its vitality. This is primarily because when the American people want a change of Government, even when they merely want “new faces,” they can raise the old electioneering battle cry of “throw the rascals out.”

Roosevelt also frankly acknowledged the serious defects which then plagued America’s voting rights then, saying:

It is true that there are many undemocratic defects in voting laws in the various States, almost forty-eight different kinds of defects, and some of these produce injustices which, prevent a full and free expression of public opinion.

The right to vote must be open to our citizens irrespective of race, color or creed, without tax or artificial restriction of any kind. The sooner we get to that basis of political equality, the better it will be for the country as a whole.

Two decades would pass before Roosevelt’s ambition for equal access to voting would be made into law. For many Americans today, access to voting may be more difficult than it should be. Polling places are often fairly distant, lines will likely be quite long, and even registered voters may be challenged. But exercising one’s right to vote is a very worthwhile thing, and worthwhile things do not always come easily.

I have heard from many folks that they either have already voted, taking advantage of early voting options, or that they surely intend to do so tomorrow. I have also heard from a variety of folks who tell me that they have been praying and plan to pray about this election. That sounds like a good idea.

This conflation of voting and praying is wholly apt, as it turns out, at least from the etymology and origins of the word “vote.”

Our English word “vote” derives from the Latin VOTVM, which means a prayer, a wish, or a promise to God (this last is reflected in our words such as “devotion” and “votive” offerings.) The word VOTVM is in turn derived from the verb VOVERE meaning to pray, wish or to vow.

When we vote, then, we express our wish. Perhaps we avow our preference. Possibly we pray. And maybe – just maybe – our prayers will be answered.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:

1, To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:

2, To speak no evil of the person they voted against: and,

3, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those who voted on the other side.

– John Wesley

From The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A. M., Volume IV, 3rd edition, London: John Mason, 1829, entry from Thursday, October 6, 1774: