Sunday, March 15, 2009

Our Institutions Could Be Different -- and Worse

In his History of England, Macaulay recounts a murder that took place in London in the 1690s. Two men, a lord and a high-born commoner, conceived a grudge against Mountford, a celebrated actor. They went in search of him one night, to take their revenge:

They swaggered sword in hand during two hours about the streets near Mountford's dwelling. The watch requested them to put up their weapons. But when the young lord announced that he was a peer, and bade the constables touch him if they durst, they let him pass. So strong was privilege then; and so weak was law. [from Chapt. XIX]

The pair ultimately killed Mountford, but the young lord was acquitted of the murder by the House of Lords.

Incidents like this help us remember how valuable our legal and cultural institutions of equality are. "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal . . . ."

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