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When asked to imagine the birthplace of our contemporary republican democracy, most educated people point to the democratic traditions of ancient Athens and to the institutions and offices of the Roman Republic. Yet, Athens was destroyed and its democracy destroyed centuries before the birth of Christ, and the Roman Republic succumbed to imperial despotism in 27BC. These shining examples continued to burn as embers of remembrance long after their practical extinction, thanks to a political and intellectual class dedicated to the preservation of ancient documents and knowledge. But while preserving the records, the successor states of both Athens and Rome were neither democratic nor republican in character.
It is not until the signing of the Magna Carta that most people trace a tentative rekindling of the concepts of limited government and representation. While far from a republican document, let alone a democratic one, Magna Carta represented the first time one of the European monarchies that arose from the ruins of Rome formally constituted a limited relationship between ruler and subjects (or ruler and barons as was the case at first).
The Magna Carta is still thought of as the nucleus of the British constitution. It represents a starting point out of which arose parliamentary primacy, and eventual parliamentary democracy. It was the concept of the natural and constitutionally guaranteed Rights of Englishmen, and their perceived impugning by taxation without appropriate representation, that spurred the American colonists first to demand redress, and then to open revolt.
This is the story most students in the English-speaking world are taught. A line is drawn through history showing the unbroken thread of liberty and limited government, from Greece to Rome to Britain, and finally to the United States where it reached its full and final flowering in republican splendor.
Yet this substantively Anglo-centric view leaves out several important episodes in the saga of republican government. If we cast our eye further afield we may find a far richer history than the textbooks permit. Casting our gaze northward to another island in the Atlantic we see another, independent birth of republicanism, one that has carried its own legacy to the present day. This is the story of Iceland and its discovery of representative government.
Iceland was first settled by Norwegian Vikings around 874AD. The impetus to leave their homeland appears to have been twofold. For some it was the desire to find new lands on which to build farms and to raise families. For others it was the desire to escape the authority of the Norwegian king.
These early pioneers found a fairly barren, inhospitable land, but they swiftly went about making a home for themselves. In many ways the settlers replicated life as it was on the Scandinavian mainland, with family and clan groups forming the primary centers of social life. Architecture and farming practices were successfully transferred wholesale.
The one thing the settlers did not bring along with them was an established government. No nobility or royal family staked claim to the Icelanders. Indeed, among the early Icelanders there was no central form of government at all. This state of affairs proved somewhat unstable, as no set rule of law resulted in feuds that cost many lives. Eventually the most respected and powerful clan leaders met to resolve these problems. As pragmatic as they were warlike, the Icelanders agreed to establish a permanent government to uphold a binding rule of law and to arbitrate disputes between individuals and families.
In 930AD this government took shape as the Althing, or assembly. It would be a sort of proto-parliament, with seats apportioned to the major families and regions. The Althing was to be a deliberative and legislative body, as well as central judiciary. No one was denied access to it by merit of birth.
It was settled that the permanent meeting place would be in a valley within easy riding distance of the major population centers. As a quirk of history, or maybe as an auspicious sign, the particular valley chosen happens to fall directly on the dividing line of two tectonic plates. On one side is the plate carrying most of Europe. The other, to the west, holds the eastern North American continent. The Icelandic pioneers could not know that, of course, but looking back on it through history, it dredges up a sense of symbolic importance. Here, in this rugged frontier, men with little or no education had settled on a break with the only way of governing they had ever known, a break as palpable as the split in the earth dividing the Old World and the New over which they met.
The imagination calls up images of these brave men who embarked on a new course, one with which they had no experience and no guidance from Greek or Roman forebears. As they met beneath the moon-cast shadows of ancient crags, they could hardly have known what a revolutionary path they had chosen to tread.
While far from as representative as what modern citizens would expect from a legislative body, the Althing was a remarkable first step in the direction of parliamentary governance. The body was large enough to include many landowners, not simply the mightiest in the land. It enacted a binding law that was recognized and respected by the citizenry with a remarkable zeal. The respect for the rule of law was inculcated in Icelanders in a time when much of the rest of the world was ruled by the fiat of kings or warlords. Even their kinsfolk in Scandinavia were subject to powerful kings and lords.
The difference in mindset between the Icelandic people and the Scandinavian society they left behind is perhaps best reflected in the extant legends and sagas of the two groups. Scandinavia is famous for its bloody epics detailing the exploits of mighty heroes who slay preposterous numbers of warriors and monsters. In Iceland, the sagas still have some of that blood and thunder. But the centerpieces of the stories tend to revolve more around intricate legal disputes and oratorical, rather than martial, brilliance.
Over the centuries, despite successive foreign invaders and occupiers seeking to quash it, the Althing has persisted, showing as much stubbornness as the Icelandic people. It remains the chief governing body of Iceland, though it now fits squarely in the mold of modern parliamentary democracy. It is the oldest extant parliament in the world. It is a living reminder of humans’ desire to rule themselves and to be free of arbitrary government. It is wise to reflect on the many paths nations have followed to the promised land of representative democracy. Doing so allows us to see its invaluable worth to humanity and to the enduring truth it upholds.