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thus, neck and heels together; honor to whom honor is due. This punishment seems to have been very effectual. It was used in the case of the first offence committed in the colony, which was that of John Billington, a profane, miserable wretch, shuffled in ” by some unaccountable trickery among the Pilgrims at London, but who afterwards was hung for murder. March 24th, 1621, he was
convicted before the whole company for his contempt of Captain Standish's lawful command with opprobrious speeches: for which he was adjudged to have his neck and heels tied together: but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first offence, he is forgiven.”
Governor Bradford, with an almost prophetic discernment of the elements of character and their consequences, declared in a letter to Mr. Cushman in 1624, concerning this miserable fellow, who for some cause was a great enemy of Cushman, that he was “a knave, and as such would live and die.” It was the Governor's opinion that he was smuggled in most improperly among the Pilgrims in England, at their first embarkation, but how he knew not. He stained the soil of New England with the first murder, being truly the Cain of that Eden of the New World. Mr. Hubbard gives the account of his unprovoked crime and its just retribution, in the following words;
“ About September, 1630, was one Billington executed at Plymouth, for murder. When the world was first peopled, and but one family to do that, there was yet too many to live peaceably together; so, when this wilderness began first to be peopled by the English, when there was but one poor town, another Cain was found therein, who maliciously slew his neighbor in the field, as he accidentally met him, as himself was going to shoot deer. The poor fellow, perceiving the intent of this Billington, his mortal enemy, sheltered himself behind trees as well as he could for a while ; but the other not being so ill a marksman as to ruin his aim, made a shot at him, and struck him on the
shoulder, with which he died soon after. The murderer expected that either for want of power to execute for capital offences, or for want of people to increase the plantation, he should have his life spared; but justice otherwise determined, and rewarded him, the first murderer of his. neighbor there, with the deserved punishment of death, for a warning to others."*
The trial of this murderer was a most important occasion. The colony were somewhat in doubt whether the patent gave them authority in cases of life and death to pass and execute judgment. They might deduce that authority from their own compact, but they were anxious to proceed legally as well as justly, in right form as well as in reality. They sought the advice of their brethren in Massachusetts, the case occurring in the same year with the arrival of Governor Winthrop and the company of colonists along with him. Governor Winthrop in his journal merely mentions the execution thus: “Billington executed at Plymouth for murdering.” But it appears from Hutchinson, who, as Mr. Savage remarks, has perhaps digested all that can be known in regard to that trial, that Mr. Winthrop, having consulted with the ablest gentlemen there, concurred with the opinion at Plymouth that the man ought to die, and the land be purged from blood. This was founded on the divine command, “Whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; which was not, in any case, to be dispensed with.”+ Hutchinson remarks that they observed all the forms of law, there being both grand jury and petty jury impannelled, and after indictment, verdict, and sentence, the criminal was executed. They took their authority and obligation of punishment by death for the crime of murder directly from the Word of' God, regarding the old ordinance given to Noah as of universal appointment for the guidance of mankind.
* Hubbard's Gen. Hist. New England, ch. xvii., p. 101. Mass. Hist. Coll. + Hutchinson's Hist. Mass., vol. ii., p. 413.
They had need be very good artists,” said Mr. Hubbard on another occasion, “and go exactly to work, that lay the foundation of a building; for a little error there, may appear very great and formidable in the superstructure, if any thing be done out of square in the bottom, which at the first is not easily discerned.”
Now it is remarkable that in the first great instance of capital legislation in this country, our Pilgrim Fathers went not to the laws of England for their guidance, but to those of God. On this point Dr. Bacon of New Haven has written admirably. What system of legislation should the colonists take in founding a New World ? They could not instantly frame a new system ; it must be the work of time and experience. Should they take the laws of England ? “ Those were the very laws from which they fled. Those laws would subject them at once to the king, to the parliament, and to the prelates in their several jurisdictions. The adoption of the laws of England would have been fatal to the object of their emigration.” They could not take the Roman civil law; but they had a code of laws in every man's hand in the Bible, laws given to a community emigrating, like themselves, from their native country, for the great purpose of maintaining in simplicity and purity the worship of the one true God. Like the Israelites of old, they were to be a people surrounded by the heathen, and intermingled among them, and needing the influence of laws framed with a special reference to such a corrupting neighborhood and intercourse. Like the Hebrews also they were a free republican people, and needed laws for a community where there was no absolute power, where there were no privileged classes ; laws, whose aim should be that equal and exact justice which is the only freedom.
Dr. Bacon proceeds to remark upon two of the most important effects of their renouncing the laws of England and adopting the Mosaic law; first, the change of the principle on which inheritances were to be divided, rejecting the
English rule of giving all real estate to the eldest son, thus doing away with the system of English aristocracy, and promoting equality among the people ; and second, the change in respect to the inflicting of capital punishment. By this bold reformation, taking the Hebrew laws instead of the laws of England, the colonists reduced the bloody catalogue of crimes punishable by English law with death, down at once from one hundred and fifty to eleven! Dr. Bacon well remarks that “the greatest and boldest improvement which has been made in criminal jurisprudence by any one act since the dark ages, was that which was made by our fathers, when they determined that the judicial laws of God as they were delivered by Moses, should be accounted of moral equity, and generally bind all offenders, and be a rule to all the courts."*
On the greatness and wisdom of their legal reforms and precedents, Prescott Hall has likewise written with great beauty and power, somewhat in detail. He says that nearly all the important alterations made in the jurisprudence of New York within the last fifty years have been borrowed, directly or indirectly, from the laws of New England, and especially from those of Connecticut.
“ Indeed, I may go further, and say that there is scarcely a change, or an improvement, called for or suggested by the distinguished Lord Brougham in his great speech upon law reforms in England, delivered in the House of Commons in the year 1828, but what may be found among the enactments of legislatures and the practice of courts in the Eastern States.”
These great improvements were begun at once. “ With a bold defiance,” says Mr. Hall, “ of customs immemorial, and of forms rendered sacred by antiquity, they commenced the progress of legal reform from the moment their feet first pressed the sod of their new found country. With no affected disregard for the wisdom and learning of their ancestors, with no pretensions to a more perfect knowledge
* Bacon's Historical Discourses.
of man's true social condition than that which prevailed at home, they did nevertheless at once institute the inquiry as to how much of an antiquated system was suited to their wants and condition. Having the common Statute law of England open and before them, and with a steady eye upon ancient precedents, they began a system of legal change at once radical, yet conservative.” Mr. Hall speaks of the subject of non-imprisonment for debt, as considered and acted on in New England two hundred years ago, and upon the law for a complete registration of lands, and upon the explosion of the complicated unnecessary forms in civil and other proceedings ; simple and clear statements, and direct straightforward pleadings coming in their place.
“And then,” says he," as to that law that prefers the first born son to all others, in itself so iniquitous, what had our ancestors to say to that ? They said it should be blotted out from the statute-book, once and for ever.
“ How otherwise could equal rights be maintained or Republican forms of government be preserved ? In the proud monarchies of Europe it became the policy of the aristocracy to preserve great estates in the same family in a di
a rect line, that their influence might remain continuous and unbroken-thus transmitting from father to son not only the wealth of the ancestor but his political influence also.
“ But in a free country how should we stand, if even without political authority, the parent might entail upon his son whole towns, and counties, and states? Would freemen contentedly ride for thirty-seven miles by the side of a great estate (as you may now in some parts of Great Britain), with the reflection in their minds that in all time to come, the influence of that proprietor and his descendants must remain unchecked and undisturbed ?
“ What caused the first outbreaks among the people of Rome when they left their city to take refuge on the sacred Mount? The monopoly of lands by the rich. What was the remedy there? À division of those lands among