The Genuine Principles of the Ancient Saxon,
or English Constitution
Carefully collected from the best Authorities; With some Observations, on their peculiar fitness, for the United Colonies in general; and Pennsylvania in particular.
AS, by the tyranny of GEORGE the Third, the compact of allegiance and protection between him and the good people of this Colony is totally dissolved, and the whole power of government is by that means returned to the people at large; it is become absolutely necessary to have this power collected and again reposed in such hands as may be judged most likely to employ it for the common good.
In most states, men have been too careless in the delegation of their governmental power; and not only disposed of it in a very improper manner, but suffered it to continue so long in the same hands, that the deputieshave, like the King and Lords of Great-Britain, at length become possessors in their own right; and instead of public servants, are in fact the masters of the public. Our new Republics should use the utmost caution to avoid those fatal errors; and be supremely careful in placing that dangerous power of controlling the actions of individuals, in such a manner that it may not counteract the end for which it was established.
GOVERNMENT may be considered, a deposite of the power of society in certain hands, whose business it is to restrain, and in some cases to take off such members of the community as disturb the quiet and destroy the security of the honest and peaceable subject. This government is founded in the nature of man, and is the obvious end of civil society; “yet such is the thirst of power in most men, that they will sacrifice heaven and earth to wrest it from its foundation; to establish a power in themselves to tyrannize over the persons and properties of others.” To prevent this, let every article of the constitution or set of fundamental rules by which even the supreme power of the state shall be governed, be formed by a convention of the delegates of the people, appointed for that express purpose: which constitution shall neither be added to, diminished from, nor altered in any respect by any power besides the power which first framed it. By this means an effectual bar will be opposed to those enterprizing spirits, who have told us with much assurance, that after the people had made their annual or septennial offering, they had no more to do with government than their cattle.
A CONVENTION being soon to sit in PHILADELPHIA; I have thought it my duty to collect some sentiments from a certain very scarce book, entitled an Historical Essay on the English Constitution, and publish them, with whatever improving observations our different circumstances may suggest, for the perusal of the gentlemen concerned in the arduous task of framing a constitution.
“THAT beautiful system, formed, (as Montesquieu says,) in the German woods, was introduced into England about the year four hundred and fifty.” The peculiar excellence of this system consisted in its incorporating small parcels of the people into little communities by themselves. These petty states held parliaments often; for whatever concerned them in common, they met together and debated in common; and after due consideration of the matter, they called a vote, and decided the question, by a majority of voices. In these councils every man had a voice, who had a residence of his own in the tithing, (or township) and paid his tax and performed his share of the public duties. This salutary institution, our honorable Conference of Committees has again revived at their late sitting.
To avoid the tumult, which always must attend the hearing and determining civil and criminal cases, by a popular tribunal, they had their executive courts in every township; and still kept the legislative and executive departments separate, in all cases whatsoever.
AMONG these people we find the origin of the inestimable trial by juries; and I am much mistaken if our present Justices of the Peace, may not also trace their derivation from the same salubrious source.* However that may be, one thing is certain, that “they founded their government on the common rights of mankind. They made the elective power of the people the first principle of the constitution, and delegated that power to such men as they could best confide in. But they were curiously cautious in that respect, knowing well the degenerating principles of mankind; that power makes a vast difference in the temper and behaviour of men, and often converts a good man in private life to a tyrant in office. For this reason they never gave up their natural liberty or delegated their power for making laws, to any man for a longer time than one year.”
*The ancient Conservatores, were to all valuable purposes Justices of the Peace.
“THE object upon which our elective power acts is remarkably different from that of the Romans. Theirs was directed to operate in the election of their chief officers, and particularly their consuls; or those who were vested with the executive authority whom they changed annually. But the senate where the principal power in their state was lodged, was a more fixed body of men; and not subject to the elective power of the people.”
“OUR Saxon forefathers almost reversed this principle; for they made their wittenagemot or parliament, where the principal power was lodged, annually moveable and entirely subject to the elective power of the people; and gave a more fixed state to the executive authority. This last they continued within a certain sphere of action, prescribed by law; so that it could not operate to the injury of any individual, either in his person or property; and was controllable in all acts of state, by the elective power which they vested annually in their wittenagemot, or parliament.”
“THE annual exercise of the elective power, was the quintessence, the life and soul of the constitution; and the basis of the whole fabric of their government, from the internal police of the minutest part of the country, to the administration of the government of the whole kingdom. This Saxon institution, formed a perfect model of government; where the natural rights of mankind were preserved, in their full exercise, pure and perfect, as far as the nature of society will admit of.”
“It would be something very surprizing to find the people of England continually disputing about the principles and powers, vested in the constitutent parts of their government; did we not know that at this day it consists of a mixture of the old, or first establishment, and that which took place at (and since) what is commonly called the conquest, by William the First. These two forms of government, the first founded upon the principles of liberty, and the latter upon the principles of slavery, it is no wonder they are continually at war, one with the other. For the first is grounded upon the natural rights of mankind, in the constant annual exercise of their elective power, and the latter upon the despotic rule of one man. Hence our disputants, drawing their arguments from two principles, widely different, must of course differ in their conclusions.”
“OUR Saxon forefathers established their government in Britain, before the transactions of mankind were recorded in writing; at least among the northern nations. They therefore handed down to posterity, the principles of their government, by the actual exercise of their rights; which became the ancient usage and custom of the people, and the law of the land. And hence it came to pass, that when this ancient custom and usage ceased to act, the remembrance of the custom ceased with it. We may add to this, that, since the conquest, our arbitrary kings and men of arbitrary principles, have endeavored to destroy the few remaining records, and historical facts that might keep in remembrance a form of government so kind, friendly and hospitable to the human species. It is for these reasons that we have such a scarcity of historical evidence, concerning the principles and manner of conducting the first establishment of our mode of government in this kingdom.”
“HOWEVER, notwithstanding these difficulties, there are many customs, forms, principles and doctrines, that have been handed down to us by tradition; which will serve as so many landmarks, to guide our steps to the foundation of this ancient structure, which, is only buried under the rubbish collected by time, and new establishments. Whatever is of Saxon establishment is truly constitutional; but whatever is Norman, is heterogeneous to it, and partakes of a tyrannical Spirit.”
“FROM these sources it is, that I would endeavor to draw the outlines of this ancient model of government, established in this kingdom by our Saxon forefathers; where it continued to grow and flourish, for six hundred years; ’till it was overwhelmed and destroyed by William the First, commonly called the Conqueror, and lay buried under a load of tyranny for one hundred and forty seven years. When it arose again, like a phœnix from its own ashes in the reign of Henry the Third, by the assistance of many concurrent causes, but principally by the bravery of the English people, under the conduct and intrepidity of our ancient and immortal barons, who restored it, in part, once more to this Isle. And tho’ much impaired, maimed, and disfigured, it has stood the admiration of many ages; and still remains the most noble and ancient monument of Gothic antiquity.”
IT was indeed restored in an impaired condition; as a free constitution must necessarily be, when attempted to be introduced among a people, distinguished by the odious difference of condition of Lord and Vassal.
Original article: Demophilus