Thursday, May 19, 2011

American Founding -- no more whipping boys

Whipping boy and prince
Divine Right to Be a Whipping Boy?

A new life in America gave settlers from Europe the chance to push the social reset button. Consider one Old World custom that was cheerfully left behind when emigrants set out on the Atlantic -- that of having a whipping boy around the palace.

Having a whipping boy was customary in the courts of early modern England, when Britain's North American colonies were being settled. In the 17th century, a monarch's family would find a boy to raise with the prince. The whipping boy might be of high birth, or he might be a foundling or orphan. Since no tutor or teacher could strike the prince for failing to learn his lessons or for misbehaving, the whipping boy was punished instead.

At first blush, it is incongruous for a culture steeped in Christian and classical ideals -- including the ideal of justice, which requires that each be given his due -- to have whipping boys. Justice demands that the innocent not be punished for the acts of the guilty. England's high-born justified whipping boys by the doubtful appeal to the divine right of kings. Because God Himself ordained a king to rule, it followed that his prince would ascend to the throne with divine favor. By this logic, no mortal but the father was allowed to strike the son. However, since the king was often away, the prince might go for weeks without being disciplined. Somebody had to be punished for wrong doing. Thus the whipping boy was disciplined in his stead. (This is one weird notion of karma.)

Mark Twain used the custom of the whipping boy to construct the plot of The Prince and the Pauper, summarized here. There is also a Newbery Medal winner that deals with the social custom, Sid Fleischman's The Whipping Boy. In both novels, the prince learns humility in light of the natural dignity of the whipping boy -- which raises the question:

Did the practice of whipping a surrogate improve the behavior of the prince? I don't know that we will ever have the documentary evidence to settle the argument. In their novels, both Twain and Fleischman show how psychologically close the prince and his whipping boy become. At court, perhaps it was hoped that the boys' friendship would enable the prince to feel sympathy (if not empathy) for the whipped boy. Sympathy would teach the prince valuable lessons in life, thus making him a more humane sovereign. We know of at least one whipping boy who was well rewarded for his services: King Charles I made his whipping boy, William Murray, an earl in 1643.

America: For Those Who Didn't Have It Made ... Or Who Blew It the First Time

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the people who wanted to escape to America were -- metaphorically speaking -- whipping boys. The monarchy and aristocracy rode their backs and lived off the sweat of their brows. Commoners did not "have it made" back home in western Europe. Why would princes, aristocrats, wealthy men, and the scions of wealthy families abandon their social advantages? The people who came to Britain's North American colonies figured they had something to gain by risking it all and leaving their Old World home, precisely because they were neither princes, nor aristocrats, nor wealthy men, nor the scions of wealthy families. Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo says about the immigrants: "We need to remember how very unusual these particular Europeans were. No middling or prosperous Englishman sitting comfortably by a normal English fire would choose to throw it all up and take ship for Jamestown." America was settled by the unlucky, the unskilled, the unemployed, and the underemployed [lecture 5].

Harvard historian Oscar Handlin gave us a rich perspective in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Uprooted: By July 4, 1776 (I paraphrase), the colonies were settled by 2.5 million people who had already made their personal Declarations of Independence from the social, political, and/or economic oppression of Europe.

Of course, the smuggest of the British high-born would soon get their comeuppance. Those American commoners and rabble would work harder than anybody expected, and build an economy that would rival that of England by the 1770s. Until the Revolution many of them would remain loyal subjects of Their Majesty. But they were no doubt happy to abandon the custom of the whipping boy.

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