A disturbing historical parallel: The Patriot Act and the Star Chamber

Lynne Kiesling

While I’m delving into history, consider this week’s revelation that a secret panel drawn from the White House National Security Council can put the names of any American on a watch list and “kill list” — and that action is entirely secret.

American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House’s National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.

If you know British constitutional history, this secret panel sounds disturbingly similar to the Star Chamber court in Britain:

Finding its support from the king’s prerogative (sovereign power and privileges) and not bound by the common law, Star Chamber’s procedures gave it considerable advantages over the ordinary courts. It was less bound by rigid form; it did not depend upon juries either for indictment or for verdict; it could act upon the petition of an individual complainant or upon information received; it could put an accused person on oath to answer the petitioner’s bill and reply to detailed questions. On the other hand, its methods lacked the safeguards that common-law procedures provided for the liberty of the subject. Parliaments in the 14th and 15th centuries, while recognizing the occasional need for and usefulness of those methods, attempted to limit their use to causes beyond the scope or power of the ordinary court.

It was during the chancellorship of Thomas Wolsey (1515–29) that the judicial activity of Star Chamber grew with greatest rapidity. In addition to prosecuting riot and such crimes, Wolsey used the court with increased vigour against perjury, slander, forgery, fraud, offenses against legislation and the king’s proclamations, and any action that could be considered a breach of the peace. Wolsey also encouraged suitors to appeal to it in the first instance, not after they had failed to find an efficient remedy in the ordinary courts.

The Star Chamber played a crucial role in facilitating the corruption and power-mongering of Henry VIII’s reign, but attracted more opposition in the 17th century when it enabled Charles I’s reign to execute religious dissenters. It  was finally eliminated in the mid-17th century.

Boulton & Watt on new £50 note

Lynne Kiesling

Industrial revolutionaries, rejoice! The Bank of England is honoring one of the most fruitful and enterprising inventor-entrepreneur partnerships in economic history, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, by putting their images on the new £50 note.

You are probably familiar with James Watt as the inventor of the double-acting steam engine and other accompanying improvements that enabled mechanization and the ultimate replacement of animate, water, and wind power for the industrial transformations of the 19th century. Watt’s hard work and vision created a power source that enabled a dramatic increase in productivity, innovation, living standards, and transformational economic growth.

But Watt was also an irascible inventor who did not relish the customer-facing aspect of commercializing his inventions, which was where Matthew Boulton came in. Boulton’s background in manufacturing metal products, combined with his business sense and his “people skills”, made the partnership of Boulton and Watt a commercial success and the firm of Boulton & Watt one of the most profitable and influential pioneers of mechanization and industrialization. They truly changed the world for the better.

HT: Boing Boing