American Founders

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With all this, I still believe that it is to England we must go for the origin of what we are most proud of in our institutions, much as the Dutch have taught us for which we ought to be grateful, and much as we may owe to French sceptics and Swiss religionists. This belief is confirmed by a book I have just read by Hannis Taylor on the "Origin and Growth of the English Constitution." It is not an artistic history, by any means, but one in which the author has brought out the recent investigations of Edward Freeman, John Richard Green, Bishop Stubbs, Professor Gneist of Berlin, and others, who with consummate learning have gone to the roots of things,--some of whom, indeed, are dry writers, regardless of style, disdainful of any thing but facts, which they have treated with true scholastic minuteness. It appears from these historians, as quoted by Taylor, and from other authorities to which the earlier writers on English history had no access, that the germs of our free institutions existed among the Anglo-Saxons, and were developed to a considerable extent among their Norman conquerors in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when barons extorted charters from kings in their necessities, and when the common people of Saxon origin secured valuable rights and liberties, which they afterwards lost under the Tudor and Stuart princes. I need not go into a detail of these. It is certain that in the reign of Edward I. (1274-1307), himself a most accomplished and liberal civil ruler, the English House of Commons had become very powerful, and had secured in Parliament the right of originating money bills, and the control of every form of taxation,--on the principle that the people could not be taxed without their own consent. To this principle kings gave their assent, reluctantly indeed, and made use of all their statecraft to avoid compliance with it, in spite of their charters and their royal oaths. But it was a political idea which held possession of the minds of the people from the reign of Edward I. to that of Henry IV. During this period all citizens had the right of suffrage in their boroughs and towns, in the election of certain magistrates. They were indeed mostly controlled by the lord of the manor and by the parish priest, but liberty was not utterly extinguished in England, even by Norman kings and nobles; it existed to a greater degree than in any continental State out of Italy. It cannot be doubted that there was a constitutional government in England as early as in the time of Edward I., and that the power of kings was even then checked by parliamentary laws.

In Freeman's "Norman Conquest," it appears that the old English town, or borough, is purely of Teutonic origin. In this, local self-government is distinctly recognized, although it subsequently was controlled by the parish priest and the lord of the manor under the influence of the papacy and feudalism; in other words, the ancient jurisdiction of the tun-mot--or town-meeting--survived in the parish vestry and the manorial court. The guild system, according to Kendall, had its origin in England at a very early date, and a great influence was exercised on popular liberty by the meetings of the various guilds, composed, as they were, of small freemen. The guild law became the law of the town, with the right to elect its magistrates. "The old reeve or bailiff was supplanted by mayor and aldermen, and the practice of sending the reeve and four men as the representatives of the township to the shire-moot widened into the practice of sending four discreet men as representatives of the county to confer with the king in his great council touching the affairs of the kingdom." "In 1376," says Taylor, "the Commons, intent upon correcting the evil practices of the sheriff, petitioned that the knights of the shire might be chosen by common election of the better folk of the shires, and not nominated by the sheriff; and Edward III. assented to the request."

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