« AnteriorContinuar »
The love of our country naturally awakens in us a spirit of curiosity to inquire into the conduct of our ancestors, and to learn the memorable events of their history : and this is certainly a far more urgent motive than any which usually prompts us to the pursuit of other historical researches. Nothing that happened to our forefathers can be a matter of indifference to us.
It is natural to indulge the mixed emotions of veneration and esteem for them; and our regard is not founded upon blind partiality, but results from the most steady and rational attachment. We are their descendants, we reap the fruits of their public and private labours, and we not only share the inheritance of their property, but derive reputation from their noble actions. A Russian or a Turk may have a strong predilection for his country, and entertain a profound veneration for his ancestors : but, destitute as he finds himself of an equal share of the blessings which result from security, liberty, and impartial laws, he can never feel the same generous and pure patriotism, which glows in the breast of a Briton.
If an Englishman, said the great Frederic of Prussia, has no knowledge of those kings that filled the throne of Persia; if his memory is embarrassed with that infinite number of popes that ruled the church, we are ready to excuse him : but we shall hardly have the same indulgence for him, if he is a stranger to the origin of parliaments, to the customs of his country, and to the different lines of kings who have reigned in England-Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg.
In the eventful pages of her history England presents some of the most interesting scenes that the annals of the world can produce. In this country
liberty has maintained frequent and bloody conflicts with despotism ; sometimes she has sunk oppressed under the chains of tyrants, and sometimes reared her head in triumph.. Here Charles the first, brought, in defiance of all justice, to the scaffold, and James the second compelled by the voice of his injured people to abdicate his throne, have given awful lessons to the sovereigns of the world. Here kings and subjects, after engaging in the warmest opposition of interests, have made mutual concessions; and the prerogative of the one, and the privileges of the other, have been fixed upon the solid basis of the general good. In the midst of civil commotions, as well as in the intervals of tranquillity, Science, Genius, and Arts have flourished, and advanced the national character above that of the neighbouring states. For this is the country of men deservedly renowned for their talents, learning, and discoveries in the various branches of art and science; to whom future generations will bow with respect and veneration, as to their guides and instructors. In this island Shakespeare and Milton displayed their vast powers of original genius, Locke developed the faculties of the mind, and Newton explained and illustrated the laws of nature. Here were trained those adventurous navigators, who have conveyed the British flag to the extremities of the globe, added new dominions to their native land, extended the range of nautical science, and spread the blessings of civilization among the most remote people. Here, mankind at large may contemplate a ConstiTUTION, which is propitious to the highest advancement of the moral and intellectual powers of man, which ensures personal safety, maintains personal dignity, and combines the public and private advantages of all other governments.*
This constitution, which has so powerful and so happy an influence upon the character, sentiments, and prosperity of the British nation, arose from the conflict of discordant interests, and was meliorated by the wisdom of the most sagacious and enlightened legislators.
Reserving a more exact inquiry into the regular train of events for future studies, let us at present confine our attention to a short view of those memorable reigns, during which the principles of the present constitution were developed, and those laws were enacted which form its support.
From the vast and gloomy forests of Germany, Hengist and Horsa, attended by their warlike followers, brought into Britain new arts of war, and new institutions of civil policy. A. D. 450. From the obvious tendency of the Saxon institutions to establish public order and private comfort, they found a welcome reception among such Britons as were timid and docile ; while those who were of a ferocious temper, and spurn
* By the Constitution is to be understood, “ that collection of laws, establishments, and customs, derived from certain principles of expediency and justice, and directed to certain objects of public utility, according to which the majority of the British people have agreed to be governed.” Or, according to a more popular mode of definition, it is “ the legislative and executive government of Great Britain, consisting of the King, the House of Peers, and the House of Commons, as established at the Revolution, and as their privileges have been explained by subsequent acts of parliament."
ed the tyranny of foreign power, fled to the inaccessible mountains of Wales, and there enjoyed their original independence.
As far as we are able to discern the imperfect traces of Saxon customs and establishments, by the dim light of Roman and English history, we are struck with their mildness, equity, and wisdom. The descent of the crown was hereditary, the subordinate magistrates were elected by the people, capital punishments were rarely inflicted for the first offence, and their lands were bequeathed equally to all the sons, without any regard to primogeniture. In the Wittena Gemote, or assembly of the Wise men, consisting of the superior Clergy and Noblemen, all business for the service of the public was transacted, and all laws were passed. For the origin of this assembly, we must have recourse to remote antiquity; as similar meetings, constituted, indeed, in a rude and imperfect manner, were convened among the ancient Germans from the earliest times. *
ALFRED, surnamed the Great, derived that illustrious title from the exercise of every quality, which adorned the scholar, the warrior, the patriot, and the legislator. After chasing the Danish plunderers from his shores, he directed his attention to the internal regulation of his kingdom. A. D. 872. He digested the discordant laws of the heptarchy into one consistent code, adopted a uniform plan of government,
* For the mode in which the Wittena-gemote was constituted see Brady's Introduction to the History of England, p. 7, 8, &c. For an account of the ancient Germans, the reader is referred to Hume, vol. i. p. 198; Modern Europe, vol. i. p. 58 ; and Tacitus de Moribus Germanorum, c. 7.
and made every one of his subjects, without regard to rank or fortune, responsible to his immediate superior for his own conduct, and that of his neighbour. For the speedy decision of all civil and criminal causes, he established courts of justice in the various districts, in which complaints arose. Of all his institutions, the most remarkable and the most celebrated was the Trial by Jury. Too much praise cannot be bestowed upon him for exempting his accused subjects from the arbitrary, sentence of a judge, and leaving the determination of their guilt or innocence to a council of their equals, too numerous to be influenced by mercenary motives, and whose unanimity could admit no doubts as to the justice of their decisions.*
The precipitate conduct of Harold, in risking his crown upon the issue of a single battle, gave to William of Normandy the Kingdom of England. A. D. 1066. , The Conqueror overturned at once the whole fabric of the Saxon laws, and erected the feudal system
upon its ruins.
A proper acquaintance with this extraordinary institution, which was at that time common in all the countries upon the continent of Europe, conduces maa terially to illustrate the history of those times, and to explain the ancient tenure of landed property. For a particular account of it we refer to our history of modern Europe.
The first of the Norman tyrants not only broke the line of hereditary succession to the crown' of England, but reduced the people to the most abject slavery. The confiscations of the Saxon estates, and the general
* The detail of his eventful and glorious reign is written with peculiar spirit and elegance by Hume, vol. i, p. 76.