Quid omnes tangit debet

Posted on June 7, 2022


I thought I would sound erudite and educated in the old-fashioned way today and try out some Latin on you. We’re all familiar with e pluribus unum but how many know what it means? Not too long ago I ran into Quid omnes tangit debet while working on the iconic Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas in the sixteenth century conquest of America.

If I’m reading some of his original prose, or those of others writing in the sixteenth century, it us of course in old Spanish but still comprehensible to a paleographer. That’s what those of us who read the old Spanish are called. I never heard of the term until someone told me a seminar I was taking in reading the letters and accounts of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortéz was a seminar in paleography. And Prof. France Scholes who was giving it to two or three of us at Tulane University in the late 1960s was himself not only an historian, but an excellent paleographer. So much for the wonderful world of names and letters. Scholars like to sound erudite to separate us from the rest of the toilers in our land, although I suspect a good plumber or electrician, or videographer made more than I did as a professor of history.

So, what is Quid omnes tangit debet? It translates as “what touches all must be approved by all” and Las Casas, certainly the most famous, or infamous, and effective defender of American Indians (the “indigenous” today) un the course of the Spanish Conquest (the Encounter for newbies, the Invasion for those who want to remove Christopher Columbus from history) invoked Quid omnes to make his case for equal justice for all people, Spaniards, and Indians.

I think “what touches all must be approved by all” is another quiver in Bartolomé’s arms, not that he invented it but that he employed it in defense of American Indians. And if one projects a bit, like almost three hundred years, it can easily be associated with the phrasemaking of Thomas Jefferson as he gave us “all men are created equal” and he and others of his contemporaries forged political equality and democracy as the foundations of modern American life. I know that old Thomas is just hanging in there by a thread from being banished from American history by the Wokes, but he’s still there. Quid omnes tangit debet could easily have been incorporated into the U. S. Constitution.

In theory, the principle is incorporated into the vote in U. S. life. Most all citizens, in fact, meet the qualifications to vote, with a few exceptions. Your editor, Rob Holbert, did a nice piece on the vote on Sunday’s June 5 Lagniappe.

I didn’t think the subject was so complex! Kind of like reading George Wills a few times to try and figure out what George is saying. My question is: how can/have we made the vote so complex and controversial? If you haven’t read Rob’s piece, “Election Pillow Talk,” read it. He doesn’t take sides. Just tells it like it is, as silly or gerrymandered and filled with innuendo and plain outright lies by both Republicans and Democrats.

Why did Quid omnes tangit debet catch my attention? His application of Quid omnes shows how deeply Las Casas was influenced both by Scripture and canon law, and so made his arguments immensely persuasive on defending American Indians in the face of the European conquest. The Johnny-come-lately English, French and Dutch did pretty much the same thing to the indigenous. Did someone in their camp argue for justice and liberty for all like Las Casas did based on Scripture and Quid omnes among his many sources of knowledge and wisdom?

I’m not arguing that Las Casas carried the day among his peers, the Spanish conquistador class, but they did have to listen to him since he persuaded the monarchs, like Charles V and Philip II– father and son who governed for most of the sixteenth century–, to listen carefully to him and his supporters.

Charles even suspended the ongoing Conquest in 1550 and called together a group of theologians and scholars to debate the question: was the Conquest legal? Guess who defended the side that challenged the entire legislative and judicial apparatus defending the Conquest? And that meant challenging the Pope himself, Alexander VI, who issued the Papal Bulls confirming the rights of the Spanish in the islands newly discovered by Christopher Columbus.

“What touches all must be approved by all” spoke to me today about how much we still owe the ancients for rules and principles on how to govern for all people. We have been incredibly inventive in other areas like science, medicine, engineering, and the secular world in general. No doubt about that.

But we just celebrated the 70th year of the rule of Queen Elizabeth of England. It was a marvelous show, filled with pageantry, and testimony to the staying power of the past in our lives. The Queen doesn’t rule England, except as a titular monarch. Parliament does. But she represents a magnificent strand of the human tapestry of rule where “what touches all must be approved by all.”

There are quite certainly anti-monarchists in all the world, and certainly some in Great Britain. We had a few ourselves in 1776!

But, while Great Britain lost her colonies, she did not get rid of the monarchy. It is an ancient institution, established by the Lord God among the Israelites. Read about David in the Old Testament. I think his direct descendant, Jesus Christ, would even approve of Quid omnes tangit debet for it speaks of the world, just as Jesus spoke to the world 2000 years ago.

Published in Substack, Tuesday June 7 2022

Posted in: History