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Formation of the Union By Albert Bushnell Hart Characters: 5505

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


[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 pri

nciple, 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.

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