« VorigeDoorgaan »
people who had no claim upon them but hard necessity. But what agrarian law did our ancestors provide to check, if not effectually destroy, this dangerous accumulation of wealth in the same hands? They said that lands, where there was no will to direct otherwise, should descend to the heirs alike. That personal property should be equally distributed, and the power of entailment so limited that it must be renewed in every generation, in order to be kept alive. • This,' says Judge Story, 'is the true agrarian law which in all time to come will guard the just rights of acquirement and possession, and correct the great public evils of inordinate accumulations; and you see how instantly our ancestors seized upon and adopted this indispensable improvement.'
“ Then the criminal laws of England, more bloody than the laws of Draco, were all remodelled and their severities softened down, even at that time when men's minds had not begun much to consider this important matter. In all things, I assert with confidence, in relation to the laws, both public and private, our ancestors made great and marvellous improvements upon those of the land from whence they took their origin. And these reforms became afterwards matters of the highest political concernment when they had shaken off the control of the mother country. Republican in their habits of thinking and acting-republican in their frugality—republican in their laws and forms of government, the States of New England were early prepared for that great change wrought out for them by the War of the Revolution.
“ Their civil and political rights were well understood from the very beginning:—they were preserved and cherished through all their early struggles for existence--and were all prepared to be acted upon when the day of trial came."*
* W. Prescott Hall's New England Society Address.
FIRST TOWN MEETING. PROVIDENTIAL
DEVELOPMENT OF FREEDOM.
From the Town meetings of New England, De Tocqueville deduces the whole grand fabric of civil liberty in these United States. There is much truth in the conclusion. The habit of thus meeting for consultation and decision on all common and important business, constituted a discipline of independence, freedom, and self-government, in the State, of which the pattern was first taken from the congregational independence and self-government under Christ, which had for so many years been practised in the Pilgrim Churches. This habit was the cradle of a wellordered civil, as well as religious liberty. These Town meetings were at first composed mainly of members of the Church; for the greater number of the early Colonists were such, by profession and covenant. And in the manner of this action in civil affairs, they naturally and spontaneously went on according to the habit they had formed in religious affairs. The one ran into the other as naturally as the oak grows out of the acorn, as spontaneously as from the hidden germinating power and process in the seed, or growth in the tree, spring to their development the blossom and the fruit. It was thus that the Vine out of Egypt, being caused to take deep root, filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadows of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river. They became so tough and strong, that the boar out of the European woods might whet his tusks upon them, but could not harm them.
The record of the first town meeting in New England, nay, we might probably say in the whole world (for this was quite an original phenomenon), is in this Journal of the Pilgrims. The Era of the Town itself is fixed by Mr. Prince, not upon the day on which the Pilgrims first broke ground for building, nor the day on which they began to. erect the first house for settlement, but about a week afterwards, on the last day in the year 1620 (being the first Lord's Day that any kept the Sabbath in the place of their building), they having, up to that time, assembled on board the May Flower, no other shelter being possible. There is great propriety and beauty in this; if the Pilgrims could have determined upon it, they would have desired just such a record. " At this time,” says Mr. Prince, “we therefore fix the Era of their settlement here ; to which they give the name of PLYMOUTH, the first English town in all this country, in a grateful memory of the Christian friends they found at Plymouth in England, as of the last town they left in that their native land."
The labor of building the Town goes on through the month of January, doubtless under the superintendence of Governor Carver, whom they had chosen on board the May Flower. We may say that all their consultations and determinations, as on January 9th, concerning the manner and division of labor in building, were the apparent germs or buds of the future fully developed institutions of the Town meeting. But the first decisive record is on Feb. 17th, when they met to appoint“ military orders,” and chose and invested with power accordingly, Miles Standish for
Captain. This, however, being mainly, if not solely, a meeting fixed for those military purposes alone, and having been moreover interrupted by the first alarming presentation of savages near the Town, which interruption was renewed on two other occasions on which they had a similar meeting, we pass to the last record in the Journal, March 23, 1621, where the bud is, as it were, in full and manifest development. It is a regular Town Meeting for common business, as well as for the completion of their “military orders,” and for the forming of other laws convenient for their present state. They then likewise reelected Governor Carver for the following year.
Soon after this, Governor Carver having been removed by death, there was another Town Meeting, at which Mr. Bradford was chosen governor, with Mr. Allerton for his assistant. June 18th, there was another, in which those extraordinary duellists, the two family servants of Mr. Hopkins, were “adjudged by the whole company" to their suitable and disgraceful punishment. July 2d, there was another Town Meeting ; August 13th, another on a very important occasion, called by the Governor, for aid of council. Thus these Town Meetings, begun in the infancy of the Colony, became its habit into manhood. They were assemblies of the freest, most independent, most mutually confidential character; for consultation, deliberation, decision on the most important affairs that could come before the community. The Governor asked advice at those meetings.
March 23d, 1623, we find the record of one of them as follows: “ Being a Yearly Court Day, the Governor communicates his intelligence to the whole company (alarming intelligence in regard to a conspiracy among the Indians), and asks their advice; who leave it to the Governor, with his assistant and the Captain, to do as they think most meet.” The election days were Town Meeting days. In the spring of 1624, we find the record of their proceedings, in Prince's Chronology, as follows; “The time of our electing officers for the year arriving, the Governor desires the people both to change the persons, and add more assistants to the Governor for counsel and help; showing the necessity of it; that if it were a benefit or honor, it was fit others should be partakers; or if a burthen, it was but equal others should help to bear it; and that this was to be the end of yearly elections. Yet they chose the same Governor, namely, Mr. Bradford. But whereas there was but one assistant, they now choose five, and give the Governor a double voice."
Thus the discipline of the Colony in self-government under God's good providence went on from year to year, from less to greater, from very small assemblies to very large ones, with which, if the Colony had begun, they would not also have begun in them these all important, open, free, deliberative meetings. God in his providence taught them little by little. And he let all these fixtures of the habits of a free State and people be confirmed and rendered more complete for several years, before he let the new and larger Colony at Salem come over to determine their settlement and fixtures. When they did come, they naturally fell, both in religious and civil affairs, into the same excellent habits, in their church covenant and business, and in free deliberation in Town Meetings, into which God had disciplined the Plymouth Pilgrims before them, and which by their example he had shown to be so admirably fitted for the purposes of piety, industry, virtue, public spirit, self denial, firmness, brotherly kindness, patience, wisdom, and freedom.
The origin of town governments which Mr. Baylies thinks involved in some obscurity, seems very plainly to be found in the condition of the Colony of Plymouth during the first twelve years, in which the town, being the whole Colony, "exercised all those functions of government, which are now performed in towns, counties, and