Lettres de Cachet

3 Conversations

As most of you know, I write about history a lot. There's a good reason for that. If you have strong opinions about how things ought to go in society, and why they aren't going that way, history is a safe haven. You can't libel the dead. In fact, unless you're Allison Dubois or James van Praagh, the dead can't even come back to kvetch at you for what you're saying about them.

Besides, as we know from a certain passage in the Bible, the people you're talking about won't ever know you're talking about them. Unless somebody tells. You won't rat me out, will you?

That being said, it's time to talk about…

Lettres de Cachet   – or, How to Get Away with Murder

Are you sure this is the best way to publicise the health-care issue, Your Majesty?

To begin with, we need to know that there's a difference between Roman law and Anglo-Saxon law. Under the Pandects of Justinian, which influenced the French monarchy, Rex solutus est a legibus   – in other words, laws didn't apply to the king. This was not an idea Anglo-Saxons agreed with. As far as they were concerned, kings had to behave, just like everybody else. If the king did wrong, you got rid of him, and got one who knew how to act. Much has been said about the 'consent of the governed', John Locke, and the Enlightenment, but English people knew better than to believe in the divine right of kings long before the 18th Century. Enough waffling on my part.

Now, these French kings, starting back in the 13th Century1, used their executive power to issue lettres de cachet to authorise top-secret operations that were outside the law. Such as 'terminate the Comte-de-So-and-So with extreme prejudice', or 'lock up that knight in the Chateau d'If and throw away the key'. You get the idea. A lettre de cachet meant never having to say you were sorry, because there was no oversight. These operations were on a 'need to know' basis, and brother, if you weren't on the king's A-list, you didn't need to know2.

Obviously, certain 'intelligence' services (I use the term loosely) in operation today might wish they had such sweeping powers, but it is obvious that a modern, enlightened society would never let such things happen, now, would they?

The lettre de cachet had its uses. For example, it allowed the Marquis de Sade's relatives to keep him locked up. Keeping the Marquis locked up was a public safety issue. Unfortunately, this salutary power was so abused that the lettre de cachet was cited as one of the causes of the French Revolution. C'est la vie.

In countries such as the UK and the US, of course, such things never happen. In the US, for example, we have a Constitution written by careful thinkers who were mindful of the rights of their fellow humans. Er, well, at least they were mindful of these rights, once it became clear that the Constitution wasn't going to be ratified without them. That's why our most important rights as US citizens are encoded in the postscripts to the original document. These afterthoughts, the first ten amendments, were adopted along with the Constitution – because all those frontier people said they weren't going along unless they got a few guarantees3. We call those first ten amendments the Bill of Rights – and boy, are they important.

The Bill of Rights guarantees:

  1. Freedom of speech, press, and religion, and the RIGHT to petition the government. (Stop ignoring my emails, it's unconstitutional.)
  2. The right to keep and bear arms. (Much abused, it doesn't mean 'turn your house into an arsenal'.)
  3. The right NOT to have soldiers in your house. (They make everything all muddy.)
  4. Protection against unreasonable search and seizure. ('No, officer, you cannot look in there. That's where I keep my h2g2 stuff.')
  5. The right to a fair trial, protection against self-incrimination, protection against double jeopardy, right to DUE PROCESS OF LAW.
  6. Right to a SPEEDY AND FAIR TRIAL. And a lawyer, if necessary.
  7. RIGHT TO A TRIAL BY JURY. (Sorry for shouting, but this is important.)
  8. Protection against cruel and unusual punishments. (Such as being drawn and quartered, or being executed without warning by Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.)
  9. The rule that people have RIGHTS that can't be weaseled out of by reinterpreting the Constitution. (So there.)
  10. Did we mention RIGHTS? All powers not expressly given to the federal government are retained by the states, or THE PEOPLE. (Have we been sufficiently explicit here? Do you would-be dictators get the point?)

Whew. That seems like a lot of unnecessary protection, doesn't it? You'd almost think those people in the late 18th Century were suspicious. Paranoid, even. I mean, nobody would ever think of walking all over the rights of ordinary folk like that, now, would they? It goes without saying that you don't arrest people for no reason. If the police arrested someone, he/she was guilty, right? Nobody would, say, execute a US citizen without a trial, now, would they?

Somehow, these suspicious ancestors of ours got it into their heads that, well, maybe they would, so they put in the Constitution that they couldn't. This suspicious nature has got passed on genetically, I suspect, which is why I wear so many tinfoil hats. But, as the bossy backwoods preacher says about the Bible, the Constitution says it, I believe it, and that settles it. Well, not quite.

Warning: boring legal bit. In United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), the Supreme Court, hallelujah, ruled that the President had to hand over those audiotapes. I say hallelujah, not because I enjoyed reading the transcripts. In fact, Mr Nixon shocked my lady mother so bad by cussing on them (and him with a good Quaker upbringing, no less) that we almost never heard the end of it at my house4. The important point about the Supreme Court decision was that it affirmed the notion that, durn it, Rex NON solutus est a legibus. The king, president, elected, nominated, or appointed High Punjandrum is NOT – not, not, not – above the law.

Picture of a blindfolded man, arms tied and raised above his head, framed in a red circle with a line through it ie, 'Stop the Torture'

Which is why, oh my friends and readers, this sort of thing cannot happen. People cannot be held guilty before being so proven in a court of law. Nobody is ever 'disappeared' into Chateau d'If-like fortresses. We do not torture people. We do not have silly arguments about whether making people feel like they're drowning is torture5. We do not start wars for no reason and then blame them on other folk. And we never, ever, authorise murder in the name of justice. No matter how many Rambo movies we've watched.

I am pleased to have been able to bring you this little lesson in civics and history, which I hope has helped to explain why we live in the best of all possible worlds. Aren't you pleased, as I am, that, due to the foresight of our ancestors, we are protected from the dangers of poor ethics and bad moral judgement on the part our governments?

And aren't you glad (as I am) that internet filters are not equipped with sarcasm detectors?

Fact and Fiction by Dmitri Gheorgheni Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

17.10.11 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1For what century that really was, see my animadversions on the subject, or wait, don't, you'll just get distracted. Read this instead.2If you were, and lived long enough, you knew when to keep your mouth shut.3I am frequently proud of my ancestors. They may not have had two shirts to their names, and somebody may have thought they were ignorant woodsies, but they stuck to their guns where it mattered. I'm prouder of that than if they'd been millionaires.4My mom wasn't against the President because of his politics. His language, however, was shocking, and lost him her support.5Rule of thumb: If you wouldn't like it if somebody did it to you, don't do it to them. Oh, wait. Somebody said that already.

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