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In a survey of American Institutions there seem to be three fundamental principles on which they are based: first, that all men are naturally equal in rights; second, that a people cannot be taxed without their own consent; and third, that they may delegate their power of self-government to representatives chosen by themselves.


The remote origin of these principles it is difficult to trace. Some suppose that they are innate, appealing to consciousness,--concerning which there can be no dispute or argument. Others suppose that they exist only so far as men can assert and use them, whether granted by rulers or seized by society. Some find that they arose among our Teutonic ancestors in their German forests, while still others go back to Jewish, Grecian, and Roman history for their origin. Wherever they originated, their practical enforcement has been a slow and unequal growth among various peoples, and it is always the evident result of an evolution, or development of civilization.

In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserts that "all men are created equal," and that among their indisputable rights are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Nobody disputes this; and yet, looking critically into the matter, it seems strange that, despite Jefferson's own strong anti-slavery sentiments, his associates should have excluded the colored race from the common benefits of humanity, unless the negroes in their plantations were not men at all, only things or chattels. The American people went through a great war and spent thousands of millions of dollars to maintain the indissoluble union of their States; but the events of that war and the civil reconstruction forced the demonstration that African slaves have the same inalienable rights for recognition before the law as the free descendants of the English and the Dutch. The statement of the Declaration has been formally made good; and yet, whence came it?

If we go back to the New Testament, the great Charter of Christendom, in search of rights, we are much puzzled to find them definitely declared anywhere; but we find, instead, duties enjoined with great clearness and made universally binding. It is only by a series of deductions, especially from Saint Paul's epistles, that we infer the right of Christian liberty, with no other check than conscience,--the being made free by the gospel of Christ, emancipated from superstition and tyrannies of opinion; yet Paul says not a word about the manumission of slaves, as a right to which they are justly entitled, any more than he urges rebellion against a constituted civil government because it is a despotism. The burden of his political injunctions is submission to authority, exhortations to patience under the load of evils and tribulations which so many have to bear without hope of relief.

In the earlier Jewish jurisprudence we find laws in relation to property which recognize natural justice as clearly as does the jurisprudence of Rome; but revolt and rebellion against bad rulers or kings, although apt to take place, were nowhere enjoined, unless royal command should militate against the sovereignty of God,--the only ultimate authority. By the Hebrew writers, bad rulers are viewed as a misfortune to the people ruled, which they must learn to bear, hoping for better times, trusting in Providence for relief, rather than trying to remove by violence. It is He who raises up deliverers in His good time, to reign in justice and equity. If anything can be learned from the Hebrew Scriptures in reference to rights, it is the injunction to obey God rather than man, in matters where conscience is concerned; and this again merges into duty, but is susceptible of vast applications to conduct as controlled by individual opinion.

Under Roman rule native rights fare no better. Paul could appeal from Jewish tyrants to Caesar in accordance with his rights as a Roman citizen; but his Roman citizenship had nothing to do with any inborn rights as a man. Paul could appeal to Caesar as a Roman citizen. For what? For protection, for the enjoyment of certain legal privileges which the Empire had conferred upon Roman citizenship, not for any rights which he could claim as a human being. If the Roman laws recognized any rights, it was those which the State had given, not those which are innate and inalienable, and which the State could not justly take away. I apprehend that even in the Greek and Roman republics no civil rights could be claimed except those conferred upon men as citizens rather than as human beings. Slaves certainly had no rights, and they composed half the population of the old Roman world. Rights were derived from decrees or laws, not from human consciousness.

Where then did Jefferson get his ideas as to the equal rights to which men were born? Doubtless from the French philosophers of the eighteenth century, especially from Rousseau, who, despite his shortcomings as a man, was one of the most original thinkers that his century produced, and one of the most influential in shaping the opinions of civilized Europe. In his "Contrat Social" Rousseau appealed to consciousness, rather than to authorities or the laws of nations. He took his stand on the principles of eternal justice in all he wrote as to civil liberties, and hence he kindled an immense enthusiasm for liberty as an inalienable right.

But Rousseau came from Switzerland, where the passion for personal independence was greater than in any other part of Europe,--a passion perhaps inherited from the old Teutonic nations in their forests, on which Tacitus dilates, next to their veneration for woman the most interesting trait among the Germanic barbarians. No Eastern nation, except the ancient Persians, had these traits. The law of liberty is an Occidental rather than an Oriental peculiarity, and arose among the Aryans in their European settlements. Moreover, Rousseau lived in a city where John Calvin had taught the principles of religious liberty which afterwards took root in Holland, England, Scotland, and France, and created the Puritans and Huguenots. The central idea of Calvinism is the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience, enlightened by the Bible. Rousseau was no Calvinist, but the principles of religious and civil liberty are so closely connected that he may have caught their spirit at Geneva, in spite of his hideous immorality and his cynical unbelief. Yet even Calvin's magnificent career in defence of the right of conscience to rebel against authority, which laid the solid foundation of theology and church discipline on which Protestantism was built up, arrived at such a pitch of arbitrary autocracy as to show that, if liberty be "human" and "native," authority is no less so.

Whether, then, liberty is a privilege granted to a few, or a right to which all people are justly entitled, it is bootless to discuss; but its development among civilized nations is a worthy object of historical inquiry.

A late writer, Douglas Campbell, with some plausibility and considerable learning, traces to the Dutch republic most that is valuable in American institutions, such as town-meetings, representative government, restriction of taxation by the people, free schools, toleration of religious worship, and equal laws. No doubt the influence of Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in stimulating free inquiry, religious toleration, and self-government, as well as learning, commerce, manufactures, and the arts, was considerable, not only on the Puritan settlers of New England, but perhaps on England itself. No doubt the English Puritans who fled to Holland during the persecutions of Archbishop Laud learned much from a people whose religious oracle was Calvin, and whose great hero was William the Silent. Mr. Motley, in the most brilliant and perhaps the most learned history ever written by an American, has made a revelation of a nation heretofore supposed to be dull, money-loving, and uninteresting. Too high praise cannot be given to those brave and industrious people who redeemed their morasses from the sea, who grew rich and powerful without the natural advantages of soil and climate, who fought for eighty years against the whole power of Spain, who nobly secured their independence against overwhelming forces, who increased steadily in population and wealth when obliged to open their dikes upon their cultivated fields, who established universities and institutions of learning when almost driven to despair, and who became the richest people in Europe, whitening the ocean with their ships, establishing banks and colonies, creating a new style of painting, and teaching immortal lessons in government when they occupied a country but little larger than Wales. Civilization is as proud of such a country as Holland as of Greece itself.

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-mõt--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."

I will not dwell further on the origin and maintenance of free institutions in England while Continental States were oppressed by all the miseries of royalty and feudalism. But beyond all the charters and laws which modern criticism had raked out from buried or forgotten records, there is something in the character of the English yeoman which even better explains what is most noticeable in the settlement of the American Colonies, especially in New England. The restless passion for personal independence, the patience, the energy, the enterprise, even the narrowness and bigotry which marked the English middle classes in all the crises of their history, stand out in bold relief in the character of the New England settlers. All their traits are not interesting, but they are English, and represent the peculiarities of the Anglo-Saxons, rather than of the Normans. In England, they produced a Latimer rather than a Cranmer,--a Cromwell rather than a Stanley. The Saxon yeomanry at the time of Chaucer were not aristocratic, but democratic. They had an intense hatred of Norman arrogance and aggression. Their home life was dull, but virtuous. They cared but little for the sports of the chase, compared with the love which the Norman aristocracy always had for such pleasures. It was among them that two hundred years later the reformed doctrines of Calvin took the deepest hold, since these were indissolubly blended with civil liberty. There was something in the blood of the English Puritans which fitted them to be the settlers of a new country, independent of cravings for religious liberty. In their new homes in the cheerless climate of New England we see traits which did not characterize the Dutch settlers of New York; we find no patroons, no ambition to be great landed proprietors, no desire to live like country squires, as in Virginia. They were more restless and enterprising than their Dutch neighbors, and with greater public spirit in dangers. They loved the discussion of abstract questions which it was difficult to settle. They produced a greater number of orators and speculative divines in proportion to their wealth and number than the Dutch, who were phlegmatic and fond of ease and comfort, and did not like to be disturbed by the discussion of novelties. They had more of the spirit of progress than the colonists of New York. There was a quiet growth among them of those ideas which favored political independence, while also there was more intolerance, both social and religious. They hanged witches and persecuted the Quakers. They kept Sunday with more rigor than the Dutch, and were less fond of social festivities. They were not so genial and frank in their social gatherings, although fonder of excitement.

Among all the new settlers, however, both English and Dutch, we see one element in common,--devotion to the cause of liberty and hatred of oppression and wrong, learned from the weavers of Ghent as well as from the burghers of Exeter and Bristol.

In another respect the Dutch and English resembled each other: they were equally fond of the sea, and of commercial adventures, and hence were noted fishermen as well as thrifty merchants. And they equally respected learning, and gave to all their children the rudiments of education. At the time the great Puritan movement began, the English were chiefly agriculturists and the Dutch were merchants and manufacturers. Wool was exported from England to purchase the cloth into which it was woven. There were sixty thousand weavers in Ghent alone, and the towns and cities of Flanders and Holland were richer and more beautiful than those of England.