MoboReader> Literature > The American Nation: A History — Volume 1: European Background of American History, 1300-1600

   Chapter 16 ENGLISH PARISH OR TOWNSHIP GOVERNMENT (1500-1650)

The American Nation: A History — Volume 1: European Background of American History, 1300-1600 By Edward Potts Cheyney Characters: 36926

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Next below the county as a political subdivision of England came the hundred, or wapentake, as it was called in the northern shires. One of the oldest political units of the country, perhaps the very oldest, it had become the least important of all. Its ancient significance as the primary organization of the community for judicial purposes disappeared long before the beginning of the seventeenth century, leaving only a desultory practice of holding a sheriff's semi-annual "tourn" through the hundreds of the shire; and some traditional payments of fees to the noblemen who held the hundred court as a "liberty," or to the crown. Apart from its existence as a unit of jurisdiction, the hundred was still put to some use as a subdivision of the county for purposes of taxation, for military organization and service, for the preservation of order, and as the sphere of activity of the high-constable. [Footnote: Lambarde, Constables, S 25; Cal. of State Pap., Dom., 1637, pp. 39, 104.] The high-constables were, indeed, the only officers of the hundreds, one or more being chosen annually by the justices of the peace in quarter-sessions from the same class of rural gentry as we have already seen furnishing the county local officials. The hundred, for some reason, took but slight root in colonial soil, though it was established in a few of the colonies, and in such places many of its English functions reappeared. [Footnote: Howard, Local Constitutional History of the U. 5., 272-286; Wilhelmi, Local Institutions of Maryland, 60, n. 5.] An ancient Latin law writer says, "England is divided into counties, counties are divided into hundreds (which in some parts of England are called wapentakes), and hundreds are again subdivided into villas." [Footnote: Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Angliae, chap. cxxiv.] By using the general word villas ("vills") he evaded one of the greatest difficulties in the description of English local government in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the confusing and conflicting use of terms for the smallest subdivision of civil government. Shall we use parish, town, township, manor, or tithing when we speak of a neighborhood organized for the affairs of petty government? All these terms are used abundantly in the records of the time and to a great extent are used indiscriminately.

This lack of consistency is quite natural and explicable. In the first place, local organization as it existed at this time was the residuum of several successive systems of custom and law, and contained survivals from the nomenclature of each. "Township" or "town" was a term belonging to a far-distant Anglo-Saxon past, and had been long obscured by the later institution of tithings and the still later manors. Secondly, the union of church and state, the mutual interpenetration of the ecclesiastical and civil systems, served to complicate the matter still further by confusing the word "parish" with terms which applied in a non-ecclesiastical sense to the same little group of people and the same tract of land.

Of all these terms, three-manor, town (or township), and parish-are the most usual. A manor was a group of inhabitants and the land they occupied (usually a single village), so far as these people were connected with and dependent upon a certain "lord of the manor," who had various rights over the people and their lands. Aside from his position as landlord, the most important of these rights was that of holding a court-baron and a court-leet and view of frank-pledge.

Various powers and activities had long gathered around these petty courts, but the whole group of manorial rights and duties of jurisdiction and administration was, in 1600, fast becoming an obsolete and insignificant institution. Yet the terms connected with it had worked themselves inseparably into local life. Courts-baron were held in but few places, and almost solely for the purpose of making land transfers; courts-leet were held only infrequently and irregularly, many lords of manors who possessed the right exercising it but once a year or less frequently; the whole system of frank-pledges had long gone into desuetude. Grants of manorial powers, "court-leet, court- baron, and view of frank-pledge," were made in several of the colonial charters; but these institutions showed little inclination to renew in America a vitality they had lost in England.

The English word town or township is the nearest equivalent to the Latin word villa or vill, which is a generic term used in the records, without very exact connotation, for one of those country villages in which the rural population of England was distributed, including the land connected with the village. Town and township meant the same thing, except when the former was applied to an urban community. Over and over again to the same locality first the term "town" and then "township" is applied; [Footnote: West Riding Sessions Rolls, passim.] and a careful search fails to find any distinction drawn between them. In the north of England the term town or township seems to have been especially familiar and frequently used as a subdivision of some of the other local units; [Footnote: Fishwick, Hist of Preston, 2.] and it was in common use everywhere as a synonym for manor or parish.

While all these terms meet us frequently in the records of the seventeenth century, the term parish, notwithstanding its ecclesiastical connotation, was, in fact, superseding all others as the most usual appellation to give to the unit of local government. Terms strictly applicable to other phases of the local organization were apt to be applied to the parish. For instance, we hear of the "constable of a parish," [Footnote: Archaeological Review, IV, 344.] although that officer was an official of a township; proprietors of "free" and "copy- hold" lands of a parish are spoken of, though those terms properly applied only to a manor; the same is true of an order for a court to be held every three weeks in certain parishes, [Footnote: Saalkeld, Reports, III., 98.] the term "court" being properly manorial. These expressions show the tendency of the time to substitute the term "parish" for more exact terms applied to the local governing body in its different aspects. It was the "parish" that was usually sued, taxed, and fined, that received property by bequest, and that was ordered by the government to perform various duties.

Our colonial forefathers, according to the locality of their origin or the particular phase of local government that applied to their new conditions, used sometimes one term, sometimes another; but in this study of English conditions the parish and the officers whose sphere of action was the parish may be taken to include all that is necessary, with the understanding that our use of the term parish is broad, in conformity with seventeenth-century usage.

The knowledge of the boundaries of the parish was kept alive by the traditional ceremony of perambulation. From time to time, usually once a year, a procession was formed which went the rounds of the outer boundary, stopping from time to time at well-marked points for various commemorative ceremonies. In pre-Reformation times the ceremony was a religious one, the priest leading and the parishioners following with cross, banners, bells, lights, and sacred emblems, successive points being blessed and sprinkled with holy water. [Footnote: Burn, Ecclesiastical Law, II, 133,134.] When religious processions were forbidden at the Reformation, this ceremony came under the condemnation of the law; and Queen Elizabeth found it necessary, in order to perpetuate the useful civil element in it, to direct by proclamation a certain form of renewal of the processions. "The people should, once in the year, at the time appointed, with the curate and substantial men of the parish, walk about the parish, and at their return to the church make their common prayers. And the curate in the said perambulation was, at certain convenient places, to admonish the people to give thanks to God in the beholding of His benefits, and for the increase and abundance of his fruits upon the face of the earth, with the saying of the one hundred and third Psalm." [Footnote: Gibson, Codex, 213.]

The custom survived in this or other forms, [Footnote: Shillingfleet, Ecclesiastical Cases, I., 244.] because there were no surveyed boundaries, and reliance had to be placed on marked stones and trees, hill-tops, watercourses, and such indications, interpreted and defined only by human tradition. In some remote districts it is still preserved. From the practice of performing the perambulation in rogation week it was often called "the rogation," and conversely rogation days were sometimes called "gang-days" [Footnote: Burn, Ecclesiastical Law, II., 133.] In the seventeenth century, as the men who afterwards practised it in New England and Virginia must have remembered, it was still a festivity. In the church-wardens' accounts for the parish of St. Clements, Ipswich, in 1638, is the item "ffor bread and beare given to the boyes when they wente the boundes of the parishe, 12s." [Footnote: East Anglian, IV., 2d series, 5.] Boys were taken as those whose life and memory would naturally be the longest, and the poorer boys were often especially included as a treat. In Chelsea, Middlesex, at a somewhat later time, a more official feast is suggested by the entry: "Spent at the perambulation dinner, 3 pounds 10s." [Footnote: Toulmin Smith, The Parish, 473.]

No material obstacle was allowed to interfere with the progress of the perambulators. They could, by law, enter all dwellings on the boundary and pass through and even break down all enclosures which lay across it. Private persons whose houses lay in the line of march of the perambulators sometimes provided food and drink for them, and this became so customary that efforts were made, though unsuccessfully, to enforce this custom by law. [Footnote: Burn, Ecclesiastical Law, II., 133.]

In describing the officers of the parish we pass from the class of country gentry, from which the sheriffs, coroners, justices of the peace, and high-constables were drawn, to a group of lower social rank. In the towns they may have been of somewhat higher or at least more varied status, but in the rural parishes the officers were of very humble position. In the invaluable description of England written by Harrison in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth, from which we have had occasion to quote so frequently, the author says: "The fourth and last sort of people in England are day-labourers, poor husbandmen, and some retailers (which have no free land), copyholders, and all artificers, as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brickmakers, masons, etc. … This fourth and last sort of people therefore have neither voice nor authority in the commonwealth, but are to be ruled and not to rule others: yet they are not altogether neglected, for … in villages they are commonly made churchwardens, sidesmen, aleconners, now and then constables, and many times enjoy the name of head boroughs." [Footnote: Harrison, Description of England (Camelot ed.), 13.]

The most active and conspicuous officer of the parish or township was the constable, or petty constable, as he is often called, to distinguish him from the high-constable of the hundred. He was appointed by the court-leet, where this was still held; in other cases by the steward of the lord of the manor, the vestry of the parish, or, as a part of their residuary duties, by the justices of the peace. The regular form of oath of the constable may be quoted in some fulness to show the nature of his duties. "You shall swear that you shall well and truly serve our sovereign lord, the king, in the office of a constable. You shall see and cause his majesty's peace to be well and duly kept and preserved, according to your power. You shall arrest all such persons as in your sight and presence shall ride or go armed offensively, or shall commit or make any riot, affray, or other breach of his majesty's peace. You shall do your best endeavor to apprehend all felons, barrators, and rioters, or persons riotously assembled; and if any such offenders shall make resistance you shall levy hue and cry and shall pursue them until they be taken. You shall do your best endeavors that the watch in and about your town be duly kept for the apprehending of rogues, vagabonds, nightwalkers, eavesdroppers, and other suspected persons, and of such as go armed and the like. … You shall well and duly execute all precepts and warrants to you directed from the justices of the peace of the county or higher officers. In time of hay or corn harvest you shall cause all meet persons to serve by the day for the mowing, reaping, and getting in of corn or hay. You shall, in Easter week, cause your parishioners to chuse surveyors for the mending of the highways in your parish. … And you shall well and duly, according to your knowledge, power, and ability, do and execute all things belonging to the office of a constable so long as you shall continue in this office. So help you God." [Footnote: Dalton, The Country Justice, chap. clxxiv.]

The constable, among the other duties prescribed by his oath, had to "raise the hue and cry" when it was demanded-that is to say, if any one were assaulted or robbed and appealed to the constable of the parish in which the injury occurred, the constable must summon out his neighbors, whether it were by day or by night, to seek the culprit. If not successful he must give notice to the constables of the adjacent parishes, who were similarly to raise the hue and cry in their neighborhoods. If the offender was not then discovered the person who suffered the loss might bring suit for its recovery from the whole hundred in which the attack occurred. [Footnote: Ibid., chap. lxxxiv,]

In practice hue and cry was a very ineffective method of capturing ill- doers. Harrison says: "I have known by my own experience felons being taken to have escaped out of the stocks, being rescued by others for want of watch and guard, that thieves have been let pass, because the covetous and greedy parishioners would neither take the pains nor be at the charge to carry them to prison, if it were far off; that when hue and cry have been made even to the faces of some constables, they have said: 'God restore your loss! I have other business at this time.'" [Footnote: Harrison, Description of England (Camelot ed.), 247.] To prosecute petty offenders, to force laborers to serve during harvest- time, to sign their testimonials when they wished to leave the parish, and to see that innkeepers refused no travellers, gave the constable considerable duties of local supervision.

The constable must, with the advice of the minister and of one other inhabitant of the parish, whip any rogue, vagabond, or sturdy beggar who appeared in the parish, and then send him, with a testimonial to the fact of the whipping, back to his native parish. The word rogue was a comprehensive term as used in the laws of Elizabeth, including wandering sailors, fortune-tellers, collectors of money for charities, fencers, bearwards, minstrels, common players of interludes, jugglers, tinkers, peddlers, and many others, and adequate whipping of them and starting them in the direct route homeward must have been no sinecure. [Footnote: Lambarde, Duties of Constables, S 45.]

A contemporary testimonial with which such a person was provided may not be without interest as an illustration of the manners of the time. "A. B., a sturdy rogue of tall stature, red-haired and bearded, about the age of thirty years, and having a wart neere under his right eie, born (as he confesseth) at East Tilberie, in Essex, was taken begging at Shorne in this county of Kent, the tenth of March, 1598, and was then and there lawfully whipped therefor, and hee is appointed to goe to East Tilberie aforesaid, the direct way by Gravesend, over the river of Thamise; for which hee is allowed one whole day, and no more at his peril; subscribed and sealed the day and yeare aforesaid. By us" (signed by the minister, the constable, and a parishioner). [Footnote: Lambarde, Duties of Constables, S 45.] It is no wonder that constables are advised "in every corner to have a readie hand and whip."

The constable was also the warden of such arms and armor as each parish kept, or was supposed to keep, in obedience to the militia requirements. A writer of Elizabeth's time says: "The said armour and munition likewise is kept in one several place of every town, appointed by the consent of the whole parish, where it is always ready to be had and worn within an hour's warning. … Certes there is almost no village so poor … that hath not sufficient furniture in a readiness to set forth three or four soldiers, as one archer, one gunner, one pike, and a billman." [Footnote: Harrison, Description of England (Camelot ed.), 224.]

An account of the armor kept in a parish in Middlesex is entered in the vestry accounts of the year 1583. "Note of the armour for the parish of Fulham: first, a corslet, with a pyke, sworde, and daiger, furnished in all points, a gyrdle only excepted. Item, two hargobushes, with flaskes and touch-boxes to the same; two morryons; two swords, and two daigers, which are all for Fulham side only. All which armore are, and do remayne in the possession and appointment of John Palton, of Northend, being constable of Fulhamsyde the yere above wrytten." [Footnote: Toulmin Smith, The Parish, 473.] One may easily imagine the nature and value of such accoutrements, and of the villagers who were occasionally pressed into the service to wear them. Mouldy and Bullcalf, Wart, Shadow, and Feeble, and Falstaff's whole company of "cankers of a calm world and a long peace" may readily enough have been drawn from the life.

These duties the constable must fulfil at his own initiation or upon the recurrence of the occasion for them. But the great part of his duties were those imposed upon him from above in special cases-that is to say, in carrying out the warrants and precepts of the justices of the peace, or occasionally of the coroner, sheriff, lord-lieutenant, or still higher officials. If the justice of the peace was the man-of-all- work, as has been said, of the government of the time, the constable was the tool and instr

ument with which he worked. The constable was required to arrest all persons who were to be bound over by the justices to keep the peace, and all felons and other ill-doers for whom a warrant had been issued, and to bring them before the justices into jail. And woe be to him if he allowed such a prisoner to escape. The justices might construe his inactivity as participation in the crime of the prisoner, or he might be fined to the extent of all his property. [Footnote: Lambarde, Duties of Constables, S 15]

The constable must carry out the lesser sentences of the justices, inflicting the punishment ordered and collecting the fines imposed. For instance, when a certain poor woman, Elizabeth Armistead, was convicted of petty larceny at the West Riding Sessions, in 1598, it was ordered by the justices that "she shall nowe be delivered to the constable of Keerbie, and he to cause her to be stripped naked from the middle upward and soundly whipped thorowe the said town of Keerbie, and by hym delivered to the constable of Kirkby and he to see like execution within his town, and the next markett att Weatherbie to delyver her to the constables of Weatherbie, and they to see like punishment of her executed thorow their towns." [Footnote: West Riding Sessions Rolls, 58] In assessing and collecting taxes and in obtaining information the constables were at the command of county and hundred authorities. They were used as the active or at least the most available intermediaries between the justices of the peace and the individuals whom it was desirable to reach. [Footnote: Hist. MSS. Commission, Report XIV., App, pt. iv, 28, 67.] They were by no means ideal instruments; many were extremely ignorant-as, for instance, the constable of Collingbourne Ducis, who in 1650 prays to be relieved from his office because he can neither read nor write, and is obliged to go to the minister and divers others to get his warrants read. [Footnote: Hist. MSS. Commission, Report I., 121] They were constantly being fined by the justices for neglect of their duties or for inefficiency. [Footnote: Middlesex County Records, II., 36, 41, 139.]

The most important remaining ancient parochial officers were the church-wardens. Their position and functions were not so purely ecclesiastical as the name would suggest. Their duties included, it is true, the care of the parish church and the provision of other material requirements for religious services. But they also included many things which were quite clearly temporal or civil in their nature. Coke says of their position, "The office is mere temporal." [Footnote: Lambarde, Duties of Constables, SS 57-60.] That is to say, the church-wardens represented the parishioners, not the minister or the ecclesiastical authorities. They formed a quasi-corporation for the holding of the personal property that belonged to the parish, and could sue and be sued as trustees for the parish. [Footnote: Lambarde, Duties of Church- wardens, S 1.]

The almost invariable custom was for the body of the parishioners at a vestry meeting in Easter week to choose two church-wardens for the next year. But neither the number nor the mode of appointment was at this time quite fixed. During the first half of the seventeenth century clergymen were inclined to magnify their office, and the canons of 1603 and 1639 gave to the minister of the parish some control over the choice of the wardens; although whenever the rights of the parishioners were asserted and an established custom shown, the courts upheld this custom against ecclesiastical encroachments. [Footnote: Toulmin Smith, The Parish, 78-87.]

The financial powers of the church-wardens were considerable, though exercised in most cases along with the constable, and in many only after the approval of the whole body of parishioners at a vestry meeting. They had, of course, the duty of providing for the repairs of the church and of taxing their neighbors for this purpose. Unless previously settled upon by the parishioners themselves, they levied and collected the local taxes already described as being imposed by the justices upon the parishes for various purposes. They had the power to seize and sell the property of such parishioners as refused or neglected to pay the amounts assessed upon them. Many of the parishes also received considerable sums by gift or bequest, which were invested, and the income expended for the poor or other parish objects. [Footnote: Ibid., chap, v., App.]

Property in land and houses also belonged to some parishes, apart from the minister's glebe, and the renting and accounts fell within the church-warden's duties. Various means of combining the securing of funds with much neighborhood merriment, even in those days of militant Puritanism, were used by the parish authorities, such as "church-ales," "pigeon-holes," Hock-tide games, Easter games, processions, and festive gatherings, at all of which farthings, pence, and shillings were gathered. [Footnote: Various quotations in Toulmin Smith, The Parish, chap, vii., S 12.] Such accounts of these various funds and the record of the thousand and one petty expenditures for local purposes as were kept were usually the work of the church-wardens and made their office one of real local importance. In fact, a whole cycle of parish life passes before us in these accounts. "Paid the carpenters 5s. for a barrow to carry the people that died of the sickness to church to bury them." "For a coat for the whipper, and making, 3s." "For too payre of glovys for Robin Hode and Mayde Maryan, 3d." "Received for the May- pole, 1 pound 4s." "Paid Robert Warden, the constable, which he disbursed for carrying away the witches, 11s." [Footnote: Ibid., 465- 472.]

The church-wardens, under a law of Queen Mary, [Footnote: 2 and 3 Philip and Mary, chap. viii.] with the constables and parishioners, selected the surveyors of highways; and under two statutes of Queen Elizabeth [Footnote: 8 Eliz., chap, xv., and 14 Eliz., chap. xi.] every year appointed two men who should be named "the distributers of the provision for the destruction of noisome fowle and vermine." A tax was levied upon the parishioners to provide these officers with funds, and it then became their duty to pay bounties for the heads and eggs of crows, rooks, starlings, and many other birds. A long list of four- footed beasts is also included in the definition of "vermine," and rates ranging from a shilling for a fox to a halfpenny for a mole were established. [Footnote: Lambarde, Office of Distributers, etc., 92.] The mole-catcher was a regular employe of some parishes. [Footnote: Hist. MSS. Commission, Report III., App., 331; V., App., 597.]

Finally, the church-wardens were ex-officio overseers of the poor. By the great poor law of 1597 the church-wardens, along with four overseers of the poor appointed each year at Easter by the justices, had the whole charge of the relief of the poor. [Footnote: 8 Leonard, The Poor Law, 76, etc.]

They were to estimate the annual costs and to tax their fellow-townsmen for this purpose. From this time forward taxation for the poor under the control of parish officers became the most important, as it was the heaviest, of local charges. The constant efforts of the Privy Council, through the justices of the peace, to enforce the poor law, kept church-wardens and other overseers of the poor up to their duties and engaged them in constant conferences with the justices and in making reports, as well as in the actual work of poor relief.

A vestry clerk existed in some parishes, and later such an office became quite general and influential, but at this period the records were generally preserved by one of the church-wardens or by the minister. The vestry-clerk is of special interest as being apparently the prototype of the town-clerk in the American colonies. [Footnote: Howard, Local Constitutional History of the U. S., 39.]

Various other petty officers existed, but their duties were either identical with those already described, or insignificant, or so exceptional as not to reward inquiry and description here. Such were the beadle, sexton, haywards, ale-conners, waymen, way-wardens, sidesmen, synodsmen, swornmen, questmen, and perhaps some others. [Footnote: Discussed in Charming, Town and County Government in the English Colonies (Johns Hopkins University Studies, II.), No. 10, p. 18, etc.]

Such being the officers whose sphere of activity was the parish, it remains to describe the general assembly of the people of the parish, the vestry. This name arose apparently from the practice of meeting in the part of the church in which the vestments were kept. Ordinarily, all who held house or land in a parish, no matter on what tenure, were members of the vestry of the parish. All inhabitants, therefore-land- owners, free tenants, copy-holders, laborers occupying cottages, even those who held land in the parish but lived somewhere else-were by law at liberty to attend the meetings of the parishioners and to join in the exercise of their functions.

Such a body is of great interest. [Footnote: Coke, 5 Report, 66, 67.] Those officials whose positions and functions have been discussed in the two preceding chapters drew all their powers from the crown, and the duties that they performed were imposed upon them by statute law or by royal instruction. The same is true of a considerable part of the activity of constables and church-wardens. But the vestry of the parish existed as a body which within certain limits had powers of government of its own, and could impose duties upon parish officials, appoint committees and require services from them, adopt by-laws which bound all the inhabitants, and impose taxes upon the landholders of the parish which they were bound to pay.

Yet evidences of anything like regular meetings of the parishioners are, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so scanty as to leave considerable doubt as to whether they occurred at all generally. They are not mentioned in the legal text-books of the time, which were, of course, written by men who looked from above downward and were not interested in local institutions as such. A few accounts of such vestry meetings remain, [Footnote: E.g., those of Steeple Ashton, quoted in Toulmin Smith, The Parish, chap, vii, SS 12.] but the action taken at them was apparently restricted to the choice of parish officers, the adoption of by-laws for the carrying out of necessary taxation and other distribution of burdens, and for matters connected with the building or repair of the church. The attendance probably consisted only of the more substantial members of the parish and of those who held office and must present reports. The parish life resided more in the activity of its officials than of its assembly. Vigorous local self-government could not have existed without leaving more distinct traces than it has done, and our study of the political system of the time will have made it clear that much local independence was not suited to the period of the Tudors and Stuarts. [Footnote: See Toulmin Smith, The Parish, chaps, ii., iv., vii.; and Gneist, Self-Government, book III., chap, ix., S 115.] Such was the provision for the carrying out of those matters of local concern in the county, the hundred, and rural parish which were not performed by immediate officials or commissioners of the central government. It is evident that in the early seventeenth century the motive power for almost all government, local as well as general, emanated from the national government-from the king, Privy Council, and Parliament. It was a vigorous, assertive, centralized administration, eager to carry out its will and enforce order, uniformity, and its own ideas upon all persons and bodies in England. No shade of doubt of their own wisdom or reluctance to override local or individual liberty of action troubled the thought or weakened the resolution of the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns and their ministers. Nor were their Parliaments antagonistic to the principle of centralized government, even when they wished to curb unrestrained royal control of it. Strong government was in entire consonance with the spirit of the time.

Yet this ambitious central government was working with very inadequate and unsuitable instruments. Instead of a body of efficient and responsible officials, directly and immediately dependent upon their superiors, receiving wages and hoping for promotion, such as successful centralized governments have usually possessed, the king and council made use of the old and cumbrous machinery of local self-government as they found it. It was quite unsuited to their purposes. Sheriffs, coroners, high and petty constables, church-wardens, even justices of the peace, had come down from a period when government was of quite another and more primitive character, in which the central power counted for far less, local powers for far more. Most of the local officials were unpaid, and the others were dependent on insignificant fees for such money reward as they obtained. The labors imposed upon them were performed only from a sense of duty, loyalty, or necessity, not as a fair return for remuneration received.

There was little provision for a wise selection of office-holders, so far as regarded their suitability to the objects of the central administration. The county and hundred officials were taken from one restricted class, the rural gentry; the township and parish officials were chosen by their neighbors from their own number. In a word, the government of Elizabeth, James, and Charles was trying to carry on an ambitious, centralized administration by means of an unpaid, untrained, and carelessly selected group of local officials, whose offices had been established and whose characters had been formed for a system of much more limited powers and of more independent local life.

At certain times, as in the period of personal government of Charles I., something like a hierarchy seemed about to develop itself, in which the Privy Council, speaking in the name of the king, gave instructions to the justices of assize, the justices of assize to the sheriffs and justices of the peace, the justices of the peace to the high-constable of the hundred, and the high-constable to the petty constable, church- wardens, and other township or parish officials. But no such regularity was attained; the council frequently communicated directly with the justices of the peace, the sheriff with the parish officers; and the administration became no more systematic as time went on.

The primary governmental division of the country, the shire, was the sphere of much activity; but it was not automatic, and acted wholly or almost wholly in response to pressure from above. The ultimate unit of local government, the parish, township, or manor, had many and interesting functions, but they were for the most part either declining survivals of earlier powers, or new forms of activity imposed upon it from above. It had the necessary officials and the political rights to enable it to do a great deal, but it showed few signs of vigorous life. Thus government in England in the early seventeenth century was so organized that at the top was an energetic national government, midway an active but dependent county organization, and at the bottom the parish with a residuum of ancient but unutilized powers of self- government.

No greater contrast could be noted in the position of men than that between the Englishman at home, in the early seventeenth century, and the Englishman who emigrated to America. Almost all the conditions that surrounded the former were reversed in the case of the latter. The pressure of central government was immediately and almost completely withdrawn. Many of the most urgent activities of government in England, such as the administration of the poor law and the restriction of vagabondage, almost ceased in the colonies. The class of settled rural gentry from which most local officials were drawn in England did not exist in America. On the other hand, the wilderness, the Indians, the freedom from restraint, the religious liberty, the opportunity for economic and social rise in the New World made a set of conditions which had been quite unknown in the mother-country.

As a result, the colonists had to make a choice from among the institutions with which they were familiar at home, of those which were applicable to their new needs. Of such institutions of local government in England there were, as has been seen, a considerable number and variety. Naturally, some functions which had been prominent at home were reduced to insignificance in the colonies; some which had been almost forgotten or had remained quite undeveloped in England gained unwonted importance in America. Almost every local official or body which existed in England reappeared in some part or other of the English colonies, although often with much altered powers and duties. All the familiar names are to be found, though sometimes with new meanings and always more or less considerably adapted to new conditions. Moreover, the choice was in the main restricted to familiar English institutions, for in the great variety of system in different parts of the colonies there was scarcely an official or body which did not have its prototype in England. [Footnote: Howard, Local Constitutional History of the U. S.; Channing, Town and County Government in the English Colonies; Adams, Germanic Origin of New England Towns. Cf. also Tyler, England in America; Andrews, Colonial Self-Government; Greene, Colonial Commonwealth (American Nation Series), IV., V., VI.]

In this as in other matters, the foundations of America were laid in European conditions and occurrences. European needs sent explorers on their voyages of discovery, and European ambitions equipped adventurers for their expeditions of conquest; the commercial projects of England, France, Holland, and Sweden led to the establishment of the principal New-World colonies; the economic exigencies and the political and religious struggles of Europe sent a flood of settlers to people them; the institutions of Spain, France, Holland, and England all found a lodgment in the western continent; and those of England became the basis of the great nation which has reached so distinct a primacy in America.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares