Across the street from my house in Hillsdale, Michigan, rests the body of Ransom Dunn, a historian at Hillsdale College and one of the founders of the Republican Party. I can see his gravestone from my driveway, and I can see my house, rather clearly, from his gravestone. In February, 1854, disgusted with the specious arguments and so-called “popular sovereignty” of Stephen Douglas’s heinous Kansas-Nebraska Act, Ransom and a number of other faculty and administrators from Hillsdale and elsewhere met under a grove of oak trees in Jackson, Michigan. There, they founded the Republican Party, dedicated to extending Article Six of the Old Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to the Pacific Ocean.
This was back when the party actually stood for something beyond imperialism, corporate greed, and social lunacy.
The choice of meeting under the trees in 1854 was neither accidental nor arbitrary.
In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, older even than the arrival of Christianity, great men had long met under groves of oak trees (the oak symbolized the power of Thor, Norse god of thunder) and made their laws.
Tacitus had first noted something like this in his powerful Germania, and Alfred the Great had met with his Witan (his counselors or his Congress) under groves as he had codified the common law.
According to G.K. Chesterton’s fertile and probably historically accurate imagination,
Alfred broke them with a broken sword
little towards the sea,
And for one hour of panting peace,
Ringed with a roar that would not cease,
With golden crown and girded fleece
Made laws under a tree.
Importantly—perhaps, critically—it’s worth remembering that Alfred and his Witan did not believe they had the right to make laws. Only God had that power. Instead, Alfred and his men believed they could discern the good and the ill of a thing only through deliberate prudence. With each law that already existed, they had only three choices. They could abolish it; they could reform it; or, they could allow it to continue without comment. In no way did they believe they could make a law. A man can no more make a law than he can make a new primary color. He can only see what has always been there. Sometimes he sees clearly, sometimes dimly, and sometimes not at all.
Thomas Jefferson never hid his love for the contributions of the Anglo-Saxons and even proposed including the probably mythic figures Horsa and Hengist on the great seal of the United States. They had appeared in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in Monmouth’s history of the kings of England, and even in one of the Icelandic eddas. Later, they would appear in the mythology as well as in the scholarly work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Why not in Jefferson’s mind and works? As one of Jefferson’s best biographers, Gilbert Chinard claimed, “The Jeffersonian philosophy was born under the sign of Hengist and Horsa, not of the Goddess Reason.” The annual meetings of the Witan with the Saxon king could re-emerge and thrive in the American continent, the Virginian hoped.
Outside of the Saxon tradition, one can readily find the powerful images of trees in the Hebraic contributions to the world as well: the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, and the tree upon which Jesus died, to name just a few. Or, important for our American republicans as John Willson has so wonderfully explained, there stands the fig tree so beautifully described by the prophet Micah. “But they shall sit every man under his vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.”
In Roman myth, one only has to look to Book Eight of The Aeneid, a chapter that presumably inspired St. Paul (in Ephesians) as well as such important early Americans as John Quincy Adams.
But the goddess Venus
Lustrous among the cloudbanks, bearing her gifts,
Approached and when she spotted her son alone,
Off in a glade’s recess by the frigid stream,
She hailed him, suddenly there before him: ‘Look,
Just forged to perfection by all my husband’s skill;
The gifts I promised! There’s no need now, my son,
To flinch from fighting swaggering Latin ranks
Or challenging savage Turnus to a duel!’
With that, Venus reached to embrace her son
And set the brilliant armor down before him
Under a nearby oak.
Aeneas takes delight
In the goddess’ gifts and the honor of it all
As he runs his eyes across them piece by piece.
He cannot get enough of them, filled with wonder,
Turning them over, now with his hands, now his arms,
The terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire,
The sword-blade honed to kill, the breastplate, solid bronze,
Blood-red and immense, like a dark blue cloud enflamed
By the sun’s rays and gleaming through the heavens.
Then the burnished greaves of electrum, smelted gold,
The spear and the shield, the workmanship of the shield,
No words can tell the power…
There is the story of Italy,
Rome in all her triumphs. There the fire-god forged them,
Well aware of the seers and schooled in times to come,
All in order the generations born of Ascanius’ stock
And all the wars they waged.
Only a few years before The Aeneid hit the shelves at every Roman airport and bus terminal, Cicero opened his dialogue On the Law, with the following: “Its roots are in the imagination. No farmer’s cultivation can preserve a tree as long as one sown in a poet’s verse.”
In Roman Catholic hagiography, St. Boniface destroyed a Friesian Oak of Thor with only one stroke of his axe. At the moment of its destruction, an evergreen, the symbol of eternal Christianity and hope, sprang up in its place, upon which Boniface’s followers placed candles so that the evangelist could keep preaching in the dark. The sermon enraptured the Germans, and Christianity gained a new foothold on the continent.
No one in recent memory has so mythologized the tree, so awaked us and reminded us—as a western culture—as to its primal power as has the Oxford don, J.R.R. Tolkien. In his fertile imagination, arguably, nothing demonstrated his originality more than the Ents, the walking, sentient shepherds, who even met in a Witan!—an Entmoot—to decide for peace or war.
“He is plotting to become a Power,” Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents, says of the wizard and betrayer, Saruman. “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”
With the decision for war reached, the Ents march on Isengard, fortress of Saruman. “Their fingers, and their toes, just freeze on to rock; and they tear it up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments.”
The natural order is restored…sometimes under the shelter of and sometimes through the character of trees.