What is legitimate political power?

By Zoë Jackson (@ZoeMJackson1)

The events of the past few months have foregrounded the issue of political legitimacy in global politics, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom. The US presidential election has featured false claims of mass voter fraud from President Trump and his supporters. The House of Lords recently voted against parts of the UK government’s Internal Markets Bill. These sections would allow the government to ignore and act counter to the UK’s withdrawal agreement, an international treaty, with the EU on issues related to Northern Ireland. The Black Lives Matter protests this summer have highlighted how many people feel police forces have abused their power, and where that abuse of power is directly intertwined with racism. Even the coronavirus pandemic has brought out critics of national and local governments – governments that are perceived by some to be overreaching their legitimate powers and by others to not be doing enough. In questioning election results, domestic and international legislation, police power, and pandemic responses, individuals have been asking what their governments should have the power to do, on the basis of their election or appointment, and the limits to that power.

Each of these cases forces us to consider what gives officials and governments the authority to act as they do. But these questions are not new. Paying attention to these events, I could not help but make connections to my master’s research, which in part concerned political legitimacy in seventeenth-century England.[1] Although often on a more local scale, early modern peoples also thought about who ought to hold power and what kind of power they could exercise. They also challenged those who they perceived to exceed that legitimate scope of power. 

Historians of early modern England have emphasized the importance of local officials to both local and broader political structures and processes, including state formation itself.[2] Michael Braddick argues that the legitimacy of the English state simultaneously depended on and shaped how local officials acted in their communities.[3] For example, in the early seventeenth century, taxation policies required local officials to implement them in the localities, but officials did not want to ‘to upset local interests by vigorous administration’.[4] Significantly, historians have found that exercising authority depended in some part on the consent and participation of those being governed.[5]  

Non-elite people in the seventeenth-century had a say in who was able to exercise power in their communities and how. Analyzing Maryland court cases from the 1660s, Mary Beth Norton shows how planters succeeded in removing Thomas Baker from his position on the Charles County Court, to which he had been appointed by the governor of Maryland, because the men ‘knew what qualities they respected in their peers and required of their superiors’. With a reputation as both a slanderer and a thief, Baker was pointedly lacking in these qualities.[6] By pursuing legal action against Baker, and removing him from office, these men were challenging both Baker himself and the Maryland governor who had appointed him, influencing the shape of political power in their area. In my master’s research, a 1670s Court of Exchequer case from Suffolk featured both women and men testifying against the actions of a local tithe collector. The witnesses characterized this tithe collector as abusing his power and creating conflict in the community, thereby suggesting that he was unworthy of, and incapable of effectively performing, his position.[7]

The experience of seventeenth-century people in England or Maryland cannot be compared directly to modern issues of legitimacy, of course. Certain aspects of what legitimated officials’ power, such as being considered a good neighbour or controlling sufficient wealth, would be unfamiliar to politically-engaged citizens in the US and UK today.[8] Furthermore, the franchise was extremely limited and while women could technically hold local office, in practice, such positions went to men.[9] The concept of legitimate political power would also be geographically and temporally specific. The significance of political legitimacy as a concept to people in seventeenth-century England would likely be different for people in medieval England or nineteenth-century England, and would manifest even more distinctly in, for example, colonial governments.  

But considering how early modern people thought about, and challenged, political power helps us recognize that these problems have a long history. The consequences and reach of such actions, and their challenges, were different. Even in the same period and parish, neighbours might have had different interpretations and judgments of how legitimate an official and his use of his powers actually was. But social and political processes gave and still give those in power authority, and popular criticisms of actions and behaviours that are deemed to abuse that authority are not unique to modern politics. 

Image: Protestors at a Black Lives Matter protest in Miami in June 2020 hold signs saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Defund the Police’. Mike Shaheen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Floyd_Miami_Protest,_June_7,_2020_17.jpg


[1] Zoe Jackson, ‘Female Testimony and Political Memory in East Anglia, 1660-1685’ (MPhil dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2020), especially 36–37, 49–50, 69–72.

[2] See, for example, Mark Goldie, ‘The Unacknowledged Republic: Officeholding in Early Modern England’, in The Politics of the Excluded, c.1500–1850, ed. Tim Harris (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001), 153-184; Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, c.1550-1640 (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 2000), 21, 236–237, https://www.dawsonera.com/abstract/9780230288461.

[3] Michael J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, c.1550-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 6885, 96–100,  https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511612527.

[4] Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, 234–253, quotation on p. 235.

[5] See, for example, Introduction to The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England, ed. Paul Griffiths, Paul, Adam Fox, and Steve Hindle (Houndsmills, UK: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996), 5.

[6] Mary Beth Norton, ‘Gender and Defamation in Seventeenth-Century Maryland’, The William and Mary Quarterly 44, no. 1 (January 1987): 23–28, https://doi.org/10.2307/1939717

[7] Jackson, ‘Female Testimony and Political Memory in East Anglia’, 26–30; The Oxford English Dictionary defines a tithe as ‘a tenth of annual produce or earnings, taken as a tax (originally in kind) for the support of the church and clergy’; ‘tithe, n.2’, in OED Online(Oxford University Press), accessed 17 November 2020, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/202566?rskey=BXSsTK&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid.

[8] Michael J. Braddick and John Walter, ‘Introduction. Grids of Power: Order, Hierarchy and Subordination in Early Modern Society’, in Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society: Order, Hierarchy and Subordination in Britain and Ireland, ed. Michael Braddick and John Walter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 15-16; Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, 76–83.

[9] Goldie, ‘The Unacknowledged Republic’, 153–155, 172.

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