Trashing our Anglo-American legal tradition does no one any favors

Trashing our Anglo-American legal tradition does no one any favors
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On Monday, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Alabama senator says Trump opposed to Sessions Senate bid Judiciary issues blitz of subpoenas for Kushner, Sessions, Trump associates MORE gave a shout-out to the Anglo-American legal tradition and law enforcement. A quick encyclopedia check would have shown that Sessions got it right on both counts. Sadly, some of those who should have known better acted if they didn’t, treating the attorney general as if he were a “D” student. Or something worse.

According to Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzHarris, Schatz have highest percentage of non-white staff among Senate Democrats Democrats celebrate announcement on citizenship census question White House guests to get VIP tickets to Trump's Independence Day event MORE (D-Hawaii), the term “Anglo-American” was a “dog-whistle.” Meanwhile, Gavin Newsom, California’s lieutenant governor, branded Sessions’ remarks as racist. Sometimes, politicians put ideology ahead of reality, and this sure looks like one of them. Over the long haul, divorcing the United States from history does no one any good. Rather, it stands to harm us all.

So, what is the Anglo-American legal tradition? For starters, the Anglo-American legal tradition is a lot more than a shared language. Think Magna Carta, England’s Glorious Revolution, King in Parliament, America’s Declaration of Independence, and the U.S Constitution. Government by the consent of the governed, free speech, and habeas corpus are all part of that bundle. Indeed, England’s failure to honor the Rights of Englishmen in her colonies served as a predicate for the Revolutionary War.

Our sheriffs? They are as English as fish and chips and as American as apple pie. According to encyclopedias, the sheriff originally was a local office in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, and it predated the Norman Conquest of 1066. For word nerds, “sheriff” is a contraction of the term “shire reeve.” Historically and etymologically, sheriffs are very much part of the Anglo-American legal landscape.

Yet, in listening to the reaction to the comments by Sessions, one would have not guessed it. America’s roiled political waters have birthed another grievance, and it is unlikely that this will be our last one. According to recent reports, President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE “will be looking for ‘unexpected cultural flashpoints’ — like the NFL and kneeling — that he can latch onto.” Meanwhile, the Democrats would appear incapable of connecting with blue collar voters, but for the White House’s tone deafness on spousal abuse and working women.

All of this is alarming, particularly as the Senate proceeds to address immigration, a debate that touches on what America is about, and that brings us back to Sessions and our country’s Anglo-American tradition. If immigration proponents expect people to view the Statue of Liberty and “The New Colossus” as national treasures, then they cannot deny also deny the fact that United States is part of a democratic continuum that winds its way through Runnymede and the English countryside.

Against this backdrop, all would do well to pay heed to Abraham Lincoln’s Electric Cord Speech of 1858 in which he simultaneously paid homage to America’s Anglo-American populace and tradition, but also made clear that being American was not restricted to only those the descendants of the Bay Colony, Jamestown, and New Amsterdam. Rather, America was open to those who were prepared to make the patriotic buy-in.

Looking at a nation that was tearing itself apart over slavery, and at the demise of the nativist know-nothings, Lincoln, then a candidate for Senate, seized upon July 4th and the Declaration of Independence to drive his point home. He acknowledged that half of the United States was not Anglo-Saxon as a matter of ethnicity, but that the sentiments the Declaration of Independence provided a gateway to America’s patrimony.

As Lincoln framed things, the Declaration of Independence was the “electric cord” that linked the “hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving” Americans, regardless of ethnicity. In Lincoln’s words, “When they look through that old Declaration of Independence…they find that those old men say that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’…and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh.”

America is riven by more than enough real differences. Trashing our legal tradition for the sake of reflexive political correctness or tribalism does no one any favors. Instead, it further heightens the chasm that dwells within our common language and Constitution.

Lloyd Green was the opposition research counsel to the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988 and later served in the U.S. Department of Justice.