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The Venetian Gallows

By Eric Oppen

Hmmm. Expecting leaders to obey the law. What a concept.

Recently, I was reading some histories of the Republic of Venice, hoping to find stuff I could use in a project I'm planning: a book, or series, set in the eighteenth-century Venetian naval service. Patrick O'Brian's books sell well, as do many other nautical books and series set in that period, and I am anything but averse to writing something that'll sell. I decided on Venice after considering the market, and coming to the conclusion that the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy of those periods had been done just about to death.

In any case, I was reading along, and came to a passage by an English traveler of Elizabethan times, Thomas Coryat:

"(I came upon) a marvelous fair pair of gallows made of alabaster, the pillars being wrought with many curious borders and works, which served for no other purpose but to hang the Doge whenever he may happen to commit any treason against the State. And for that cause, it is erected before the very gate of his Palace to the end to put him in mind to be faithful and true to his country. If not, he sees the place of punishment at hand." (Spelling and usage slightly modernized by yours truly)

At this time, the notion that a ruler was subject to his country's laws was very radical. In most countries, the ruler could do pretty much as he pleased, and needed only consider the opinions of the few people powerful enough to stand up to him, or those of the rulers of neighboring countries. The idea of the ruler being executed, or even punished, for violating a law, would have been shocking to most people. However, it was known that the Venetians were not bluffing when they said that a lawbreaking Doge would be punished: Marin Falier, a thirteenth-century Doge, had been beheaded for plotting to lead a coup d'etat and make himself an absolute ruler.

In this, as in many other things, Venice was different. For its time, it was very close to being a libertarian utopia; although most Venetians were Catholics, they did not bother followers of other faiths. The famous Ghetto, where the Jews lived, was a survival of earlier times, and was rather voluntary on the part of the Jews themselves, whose leaders felt that they could keep their co-religionists firm in the faith more easily if they had a neighborhood to themselves. Protestants, who found most of Italy more or less uncomfortable, were not molested. When the Papacy protested the Republic allowing the English ambassador to have Protestant services, the reply went: "The Republic can in no wise search the baggage of the English ambassador, of whom it is known that he is living a quiet and blameless life, causing no scandal whatsoever." Even Moslems, who were emphatically unwelcome in almost all of Christian Europe, had a mosque at the Fondaco dei Turchi.

The freedom of religious belief in the Republic was matched in many other parts of life. The presses of Venice were far freer to print what they would than in almost any other part of Europe. Sexual mores were less restrictive than in most other places; behavior that would have won you a branding or worse in many other countries was winked at, if not openly allowed.

In many ways, it could be said that for the time, Venice was the best place to be. One reason was that its government was dominated by mercantile concerns. Ayn Rand would have understood that capitalists, even of the relatively primitive type discussed here, are far more interested in trading with their neighbors than slaughtering them over doctrinal differences.

However, the biggest reason that Venice seemed to be such a paradise of freedom was the fact that nobody, nobody was above the law. From the Doge on down, everybody knew what the laws were, and knew the punishments that awaited them for violations. There were "mouths of truth," into which accusations could be dropped, with the assurance that they would be investigated. At the same time, unsigned accusations would be ignored, and those who could be proven to have made false accusations deliberately faced punishment in their own turn. Venetian noblemen at home behaved with circumspection that their noble colleagues from other countries could hardly believe. The unhappy corollary to this, though, was that when away from Venice, such as when governing Venetian colonies overseas, these men often made up for lost time with a vengeance.

It is rather odd that our Founding Fathers did not look to Venice for inspiration when putting together our Constitution. This can be explained by the fact that exaggerated accounts of the terrible, "faceless" committees that actually governed the Republic were in wide circulation outside of Venetian territory. Napoleon Bonaparte thought that he'd be freeing thousands of poor political prisoners when he put an end to the Republic; imagine his surprise, when he found that not a single person in Venetian territory was imprisoned for his political beliefs!

However, in reading about Venice, my mind returns ineluctably to the vision of that ornate gallows. I have not been able to find other references to it; it could have been something put up for a brief period and then torn down, or it could have been something else entirely, and Coryat the victim of an elaborate leg-pull by his guides. Still and all, I do think that had this custom been adopted here, we'd have a better country.

How many Presidents would have taken actions that trampled on our rights and liberties, had they been able to look out the window of the Oval Office and see the gallows that had been especially built to hang them on? For that matter, would our "faceless committees," the Senate and House of Representatives, be quite as eager as they are to throw away our dearly-bought liberties if they had to pass a gallows every day on their way to work---a gallows especially reserved for them?

Instead of a Republic where all from President (or Doge) on down must answer to the law, we now have an oligarchy ruled by the representatives of the interests that can command enough money or raise enough fuss to be heard. Instead of the President himself being reminded every time he looks out his window that he, too, is mortal, we have a state of affairs where the servants of the despot may sleep soundly. And why not, since they know that they will not be punished for even egregious violations of the legally-guaranteed rights of the common folk?

I am proud, for some insane reason, to be an American, even after what's happened in my own lifetime. But, reading Coryat's account, I let out a brief, passionate, wordless cry: "Oh, to be a Venetian!"

(c) Eric Oppen 1998. Eric Oppen is a freelance writer based in North Central Iowa. He says his discovery of Ayn Rand's writings, in Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal, crystallized inchoate convictions that had floated through his mind all his life. He has written several other pieces that appear on Wolfe's Lodge.

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06 April, 1998