Ordinary Subjects of Tyranny: Practical Constitutionalism and Public Judgement in the Political Thought of George Buchanan
The influence of democratic ideas on the political thought of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe is often considered in relationship to history, theology, and law, but less often in relationship to poetry. For this reason, poetry offers unexplored resources for thinking through the value of public deliberation and judgment, even under decidedly non-democratic constitutions. In this paper, I examine the political thought of the Scottish humanist George Buchanan (1506–82) in the context of his philosophical dialogue De iure regni and his Biblical tragedy Baptistes. Buchanan’s political thought was recognized as radical in its own day for the strong limits it placed on monarchical power and prerogative and the authority it vested in the people to restrain kings and depose tyrants. I argue, however, that what is most interesting for the history of democracy—as well as for political thought today—is Buchanan’s development of arguments for the judgment of the common people as a privileged site of political insight and, by extension, for the practical value of public deliberation and transparent government.