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- Formation of the Union - 4/46 -

such islands of undisturbed American life as Cape Cod and Cape Charles. The industrious and thriving built good houses, raised good crops, sent their surplus abroad and bought English goods with it, went to church, and discussed politics. In education, in refinement, in literature and art, most of the colonists had made about the same advance as the present farmers of Utah. The rude, restless energy of modern America was not yet awakened.


[Sidenote: Sources of American government.]

In comparison with other men of their time, the Americans were distinguished by the possession of new political and social ideas, which were destined to be the foundation of the American commonwealth. One of the strongest and most persistent elements in national development has been that inheritance of political traditions and usages which the new settlers brought with them. Among the more rigid sects of New England the example of the Hebrew theocracy, as set forth in the Scriptures, had great influence on government; they were even more powerfully affected by the ideas of the Christian commonwealth held by the Protestant theologians, and particularly by John Calvin. The residence of the Plymouth settlers in the Netherlands, and the later conquest of the Dutch colonies, had brought the Americans into contact with the singularly wise and free institutions of the Dutch. To some degree the colonial conception of government had been affected by the English Commonwealth of 1649, and the English Revolution of 1688. The chief source of the political institutions of the colonies was everywhere the institutions with which they were familiar at the time of the emigration from England. It is not accurate to assert that American government is the offspring of English government. It is nearer the truth to say that in the middle of the seventeenth century the Anglo- Saxon race divided into two branches, each of which developed in its own way the institutions which it received from the parent stock. From the foundation of the colonies to 1789 the development of English government had little influence on colonial government. So long as the colonies were dependent they were subject to English regulation and English legal decisions, but their institutions developed in a very different direction.

[Sidenote: Political ideas.]

Certain fundamental political ideas were common to the older and the younger branches of the Anglo-Saxon race, and have remained common to this day. The first was the idea of the supremacy of law, the conception that a statute was binding on the subject, on the members of the legislative body, and even on the sovereign. The people on both sides of the water were accustomed to an orderly government, in which laws were made and administered with regularity and dignity. The next force was the conception of an unwritten law, of the binding power of custom. This idea, although by no means peculiar to the English race, had been developed into an elaborate "common law,"--a system of legal principles accepted as binding on subject and on prince, even without a positive statute. Out of these two underlying principles of law had gradually developed a third principle, destined to be of incalculable force in modern governments,-- the conception of a superior law, higher even than the law-making body. In England there was no written constitution, but there was a succession of grants or charters, in which certain rights were assured to the individual. The long struggle with the Stuart dynasty in the seventeenth century was an assertion of these rights as against the Crown. In the colonies during the same time those rights were asserted against all comers,--against the colonial governors, against the sovereign, and against Parliament. The original colonies were almost all founded on charters, specific grants which gave them territory and directed in what manner they should carry on government therein. These charters were held by the colonists to be irrevocable except for cause shown to the satisfaction of a court of law; and it was a recognized right of the individual to plead that a colonial law was void because contrary to the charter. Most of the grants had lapsed or had been forcibly, and even illegally, annulled; but the principle still remained that a law was superior to the will of the ruler, and that the constitution was superior to the law. Thus the ground was prepared for a complicated federal government, with a national constitution recognized as the supreme law, and superior both to national enactments and to State constitutions or statutes.

[Sidenote: Principles of freedom.]

The growth of constitutional government, as we now understand it, was promoted by the establishment of two different sets of machinery for making laws and carrying on government. The older and the younger branches of the race were alike accustomed to administer local affairs in local assemblies, and more general affairs in a general assembly. The two systems in both countries worked side by side without friction; hence Americans and Englishmen were alike unused to the interference of officials in local matters, and accustomed through their representatives to take an educating share in larger affairs. The principle was firmly rooted on both sides of the water that taxes were not a matter of right, but were a gift of the people, voted directly or through their representatives. On both sides of the water it was a principle also that a subject was entitled to his freedom unless convicted of or charged with a crime, and that he should have a speedy, public, and fair trial to establish his guilt or innocence. Everywhere among the English-speaking race criminal justice was rude, and punishments were barbarous; but the tendency was to do away with special privileges and legal exemptions. Before the courts and before the tax-gatherers all Englishmen stood practically on the same basis.


Beginning at the time of colonization with substantially the same principles of liberty and government, the two regions developed under circumstances so different that, at the end of a century and a half, they were as different from each other as from their prototype.

[Sidenote: Separation of departments.] [Sidenote: Aristocracy.]

The Stuart sovereigns of England steadily attempted to strengthen their power, and the resistance to that effort caused an immense growth of Parliamentary influence. The colonies had little occasion to feel or to resent direct royal prerogative. To them the Crown was represented by governors, with whom they could quarrel without being guilty of treason, and from whom in general they feared very little, but whom they could not depose. Governors shifted rapidly, and colonial assemblies eventually took over much of the executive business from the governors, or gave it to officers whom they elected. But while, in the eighteenth century, the system of a responsible ministry was growing up in England under the Hanoverian kings, the colonies were accustomed to a sharp division between the legislative and the executive departments. Situated as they were at a great distance from the mother-country, the assemblies were obliged to pass sweeping laws. The easiest way of checking them was to limit the power of the assemblies by strong clauses in the charters or in the governor's instructions; and to the very last the governors, and above the governors the king, retained the power of royal veto, which in England was never exercised after 1708. Thus the colonies were accustomed to see their laws quietly and legally reversed, while Parliament was growing into the belief that its will ought to prevail against the king or the judges. In a wild frontier country the people were obliged to depend upon their neighbors for defence or companionship. More emphasis was thus thrown upon the local governments than in England. The titles of rank, which continued to have great social and political force in England, were almost unknown in America. The patroons in New York were in 1750 little more than great land-owners; the fanciful system of landgraves, palsgraves, and caciques in Carolina never had any substance. No permanent colonial nobility was ever created, and but few titles were conferred on Americans. An American aristocracy did grow up, founded partly on the ownership of land, and partly on wealth acquired by trade. It existed side by side with a very open and accessible democracy of farmers.

[Sidenote: Powers of the colonies.]

The gentlemen of the colonies were leaders; but if they accepted too many of the governor's favors or voted for too many of that officer's measures, they found themselves left out of the assemblies by their independent constituents. The power over territory, the right to grant wild lands, was also peculiar to the New World, and led to a special set of difficulties. In New England the legislatures insisted on sharing in this power. In Pennsylvania there was an unceasing quarrel over the proprietors' claim to quit-rents. Farther south the governors made vast grants unquestioned by the assemblies. In any event, colonization and the grant of lands were provincial matters. Each colony became accustomed to planting new settlements and to claiming new boundaries. The English common law was accepted in all the colonies, but it was modified everywhere by statutes, according to the need of each colony. Thus the tendency in colonial development was toward broad legislation on all subjects; but at the same time the limitations laid down by charters, by the governor's instructions, or by the home government, increased and were observed. Although the assemblies freely quarrelled with individual governors and sheared them of as much power as they could, the people recognized that the executive was in many respects beyond their reach. The division of the powers of government into departments was one of the most notable things in colonial government, and it made easier the formation of the later state and national governments.


[Sidenote: English local government.]

In each colony in 1750 were to be found two sets of governing organizations,--the local and the general. The local unit appears at different times and in different colonies under many names; there were towns, townships, manors, hundreds, ridings, liberties, parishes, plantations, shires, and counties. Leaving out of account minor variations, there were three types of local government,--town government, county government, and a combination of the two. Each of these forms was founded on a system with which the colonists were familiar at the time of settlement, but each was modified to meet the changed conditions of America. The English county in 1600 was a military and judicial subdivision of the kingdom; but for some local purposes county taxes were levied by the quarter sessions, a board of local government. The officers were the lord lieutenant, who was the military commander, and the justices of the peace, who were at the same time petty judges and members of the administrative board. The English "town" had long since disappeared except as a name, but its functions were in 1600 still carried out by two political bodies which much resembled it: the first was the parish,--an organization of persons responsible as tax-payers for the maintenance of the church building. In some places an assembly of these tax-payers met periodically, chose officers, and voted money for the church edifice, the poor, roads, and like local purposes. In other places a "select vestry," or corporation of persons filling its own vacancies, exercised the powers of parish government. In such cases the members were usually of the more important persons in the parish. The other wide-spread local organization was the manor; in origin this was a great estate, the tenants of which formed an assembly and passed votes for their common purposes.

Formation of the Union - 4/46

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