Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

were, the sources, the operation of one thing which we can study no where else as well; and that is, as Mr. Baylies calls it in his history of the Old Colony, “pure, unmixed, and perfect democracy."

The pilgrims were not men who talked and wrote idle words. They were no theorists. Their very words were acts. They pledged themselves with their pens, and then acted their pledges out. On the basis of the bible, (as they supposed,) and with the will of the majority as their first political principle, they set up a government for themselves, which the compact had already shadowed forth. That compact was their constitution.

They adopted no other. That instrument recognised a general allegiance to the king, but it left all power to be exercised by the whole body of associates; and it was so. It was exercised with a directness and a simplicity scarcely to be believed. No preliminary laws were enacted, even for general organization. No use was made till 1633 of their patent privilege of lawmaking at all. Crimes and punishments were not even declared or defined. John Billington, as we have seen, was tried by the whole company. So were the two servants, guilty of fighting a duel—the first ever fought in New England, and the last too in the Old Colony, so far as we know. The governor, indeed, remitted their sentence after they had been tied head and feet together for an hour. This was discretionary, as the governor and assistants indeed maintained most of their little authority by virtue of common and continual consent. These were the only magistrates. The governor for some time had been alone; Mr. Carver, whose name is at the head of the signers, having probably been at that time designated for the office by the company; while the military department was, with the same unanimity, though perhaps with still less form, assigned to Standish. These men were the best qualified, and were therefore chosen. They accepted on their own principle of obeying the majority,* and upon that principle were also obeyed. All affairs which they could attend to, were left with them. The fewer officers, it was thought, the better; the colony intended mostly to take care of themselves, and to take care of their officers besides. The office of justice of the peace was unknown. After the company grew tired of trying crimes in person, juries were selected out of the whole body, and these performed their duties in the general court, when that came to be established. As the population increased, and the settlements extended, officers and laws of course were multiplied. The application of the first principles was pursued in details and modified by circumstances, as the general good, still interpreted by the general voice, required that it should be. And so, step by step, the machinery of our republicanism was wrought out and set in motion and tried and re-tried, and improved on, and finally established or set aside.

* Very often, as these records show, with great reluctance, and probably at considerable sacrifice. There was no office-hunting in those days.

The jury was " ordained" in 1623. An execution took place under its action, in 1630 ; that of the same Billington whom we have named as the first offender; a fellow incidentally shuffled into the company at London, and rather remarkably indicating by his history the difference between their character and his own. The crime was murder. A grand and petit jury both, are mentioned on this occasion. It also appears that advice was asked of " Mr. Winthrop and others, the ablest gentlemen in the Massachusetts Bay," who all agreed that the culprit ought to die. The capital offences were declared in 1636, when the “general fundamentals” were agreed on. Four years after, the patent of the colony was surrendered to the freemen of it, and they proceeded to act as a strict independency. Constables and constable-wicks were established. A general assembly for legislation of all the Plymouth towns was held, on the 4th of June, 1637. In 1641 public provision was made for the poor. In 1643 took place the memorable first union of the New England colonies, at Boston; a confederacy, by the way, recognised and countenanced, without exception, by the royal authority, till the Restoration. In 1649, seven “ discreet men" were chosen to attend to certain specific duties, and the affairs of the town generally-being, in fact, though not in name as yet, the first “ select men;" and this responsible function was subsequently past upon more in detail, at various times. Imprisonment for debt was authorized in 1668, for preventing the diversion of the execution of justice by fraud or coven. Gradually we find mention of coroners, tythingmen, raters, commanders-in-chief, with all the minutiæ of military titles, and agents, and commissioners, and many more. Councils of war, courts, sessions, counties, inquests, schools, taxation, and other links of the grand system emerged and grew slowly into shape, till at last, when it would seem to be once fairly matured-the experiment tried—the circumstances passed and passing away, which both suggested and required, and which alone required the existing state of forms—the venerable old government waned calmly to its close, and falling into the arms of its younger neighbour and best friend, the colony of Massachusetts, breathed its last at the age of seventy-one years, in the autumn of 1691.

Our historian has written a just epitaph, over the grave of this “novel and primitive government.” He appreciates the

“melancholy grandeur,” of its history and its extinction, as being, like the condition of affairs which surrounded and sustained it, as the flesh invests the skeleton, without a parallel in the annals of the world. Here, in fact, a's President Dwight has remarked, began all the institutions by which New England, at least, is distinguished ; many, if not all of them, passed through various stages, and their progress may be seen from step to step, till they end in the mature result. Thus all the modifications and experiments upon the tenure in land, including a fair trial of property in common, settled down into the system of free socage. Thus the right of suffrage was finally wrought out. Thus towns, with all their traits, were established; and the systems of legislation and representation, and schools, and religious polity, devised, which have proved the foundations of a structure of society unsurpassed in principle, and unequalled in prosperity, as at least its own members would sain believe, by any which the world has ever seen.

The purity of the spirit with which this government was administered is scarcely less remarkable than the government itself. The indications are very frequent and striking throughout of the supremacy, over all other motives, of a few certain principles of primary rank, none of which, neverthe less, it may be said with safety, have been developed with equal distinctness in any considerable instance which history records. All may be resolved perhaps into the fear of God, and the love of liberty ; both intimately interwoven with each other, as with all the subordinate principles which resulted from them. It was these which suggested the great enterprise of colonization. These were the " fanaticism," as a modern writerone of their descendants, we presume--has ventured to call it, which sustained them in surmounting the almost inconceivable difficulties which attended it. If a passion to be free, and a determination to be so,-if, especially, a preference of the accomplishment of that divine destiny which man was made for, over every sensual consideration which makes and has made other men slaves,-if this be fanaticism, they were fanatics in their scheme of founding a country which should be, and which has become, through their “fanaticism,” not a refuge only for themselves and their descendants, but a “great realm,”

- an imperial patrimony of liberty,”—as Mr. Everett called it, the first effectual counterpoise in the scale of human dignity, an asylum for the statesmen, the generals, the princes and kings themselves-all the victims of tyranny in every elder clime ;* a grand theatre, through future time, for the vindicating, and the showing forth to the world's gaze, of the destinies and rights

* Mr. Everett's Plymouth Oration, of 1824, p. 9. VOL. XIX.-NO. 38. 59

of the race. This was the fanaticism of their purpose. It was the fear of God above the fear of man, and the love of liberty above the love of ease. It was the soul which could discern the accomplishment of their design, vast and remote as it was, through all the clouds that lowered above their heads; and which could appreciate the difficulties also ; and which, seeing both, resolved, with God's blessing, to accomplish the object, or to perish in the effort. A superior enthusiasm,-a glorious passion,-a far-reaching intelligence, beyond the power of the age they lived in, but not we hope of this, to appreciatethese we can see ; but the fanaticism which has been discovered in their enterprise, we do not comprehend. We shall not probably, nor we fancy will their decendants generally, be brought to that amazing pitch of wisdom, till at least we can be made to understand the falsity of all history on the subject of the circumstances which induced them, men as they were, to sacrifice, for the great objects we have named, almost every thing in their own country which men hold dear; and to understand also where better they could have gone, or what better they could have done, for the rescue of themselves, and of their posterity, and of the rights of all mankind, from those circumstances, and from all others, of like kind, which stand, by a needless necessity, in the way of a free developement and exercise of the destinies and faculties of human kind.

This, however, will be deemed a digression, and we confess that a paltry phrase has occasioned it. We were saying that the two great pilgrim principles were the love of liberty and the fear of God. It would be a labour of deep interest to trace out, as the materials before us enable us to do with a new facility, the operations of these motives in various forms; how especially they were, or were meant to be, evidently and essentially, the life and spirit of all their systems within systems of civil, literary, personal, and religious polity, and how, of course, a grand harmony exists, and may be found, among them all. This investigation, however, would lead us too far; and the materials we refer to are not in our hands alone, but in those of the community at large. They are rich data for a just appreciation of the true character of a generation, on the whole, the most remarkable, and of a career also the most signal and important to the world, of which any record has preserved a sketch. They will bear to be stu lied, and we hope they will be studied still more than they have been. We owe it to ourselves from the relation we hold to them, if not to them for what they have done for us. Every American, at least, should be master of the History of Plymouth.

ART. XI.-Special Message of the President of the United States,

transmitted to both Houses of Congress, 8th Feb. 1836.

“ The peace of a nation does not depend exclusively on its own will, nor upon the beneficent policy of neighbouring powers; and that nation which is found totally unprepared for the exigencies and dangers of war, although it come without having given warning of its approach, is criminally negligent of its honour and duty. I cannot too strongly repeat the recommendation, already made, to place the seabord in a proper state of defence, and promptly to provide the means for amply protecting our commerce.” Such are the words of wisdom which occur in the special message of the president which we have placed at the head of this article. There are few persons who love their country and are alive to her interests and honour, who will be disposed to gainsay their truth or withhold their testimony from the fact which so many considerations of paramount importance combine to demonstrate, that the moment, so long and so fatally deferred, has at length arrived for the creation of a navy.

When our history as a nation so gloriously commenced, in the war of the revolution, the consideration of the advantages of a naval force for the annoyance of the enemy, engaged the attention of the sages who guided our destinies during that eventful era, and led to the appointment of a naval committee by congress, charged with the creation of a navy. The power vested in this committee was subsequently delegated to commissioners, and eventually to a board of admiralty. The force provided under these auspices, was of an extent inconsiderable, in accordance with the poverty of our resources : yet the enterprize and hardihood of our seamen did not fail at that early period to assert themselves, in a species of partisan war confined to our coasts, with an occasional encounter on the ocean, in which the achievements of Jones and his compeers were significant of the future glories of a Decatur, a Hull, and a Perry.

When the war closed with the acknowledgment of our independence, the commercial energies of our people were released from the colonial bondage under which they had so long withered. We had inherited all the maritime tastes and capacities of our forefathers, and our geographical position along the coast of a vast continent, rich in valuable natural productions suited for commercial exchanges, and teeming with materials for the construction of ships, at once impelled us to enter that career, which has brought us, after the brief interval of half a century, to the rank of the second commercial power.

Our navy had almost entirely expired at the close of the

« AnteriorContinuar »