Demophilus: Principles of the English Constitution: English Constitution

Principles of the Ancient English Constitution, Democratic Thinker

Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a writer under the pseudonym of Demophilus publishes a small booklet—The Genuine Principles of the Ancient Saxon, or English Constitution—calling for constitutions framed in accordance with the common practices of the freemen of early England.

“Liberty and election are in this case synonymous terms; for where there is no election there can be no liberty. And therefore the preservation of this elective power, in its full extent, is the preservation of liberty in its fullest extent: ….”

The Genuine Principles of the Ancient Saxon, or English Constitution

Carefully collected from the best Authorities; With some Observations, on their peculiar fitness, for the United Colonies in general; and Pennsylvania in particular.


The English Constitution.

The first establishment of our CONSTITUTION, by the SAXONS, to what is commonly called the NORMAN CONQUEST, under the HEPTARCHY.

“THE first principle of a government that is founded on the natural rights of mankind is the principle of annual election. Liberty and election are in this case synonymous terms; for where there is no election there can be no liberty. And therefore the preservation of this elective power, in its full extent, is the preservation of liberty in its fullest extent: and where that is restrained in any degree, liberty is restrained in just the same proportion; and where that is destroyed by any power in a state, whether military or civil, liberty is also destroyed by that power, whether it be lodged in the hands of one man, one hundred or one thousand.”

“IT is reported by historians that our Saxon forefathers had no kings in their own country, but lived in tribes or small communities, governed by laws of their own making, and magistrates of their own electing; and further, that a number of these communities were united together for their mutual defense and protection. But by what particular bond of union they were united, I know of no historian, that hath given us any information. There were seven tribes of Saxons, that arrived in Britain about the same time, under so many different leaders; but as they had all the same intentions so far as to establish the same form of government, I shall consider them in this respect indiscriminately.”

“THEY first divided the land into small parts, and that divided the inhabitants upon that land, and made them a distinct and separate people from any other. This division they called a tithing. Here they established a government, which was, no doubt the same as that under which they lived in their Mother-Country. They had two sorts of tithings, one called a town tithing, and the other called a rural tithing. These were governed upon the same principles, only thus distinguished; as one is expressive of a town having such a number of inhabitants as to make a tithing of itself; and the other of a tithing situated in the rural part of the kingdom. Thus they went on, as they conquered the country, to divide the land, till they had cut out the whole kingdom into tithings, and established the same form of government in each.”

“IN this manner they provided for the internal police of the whole country, which they vested in the respective tithings, who annually elected the magistrates that were to administer justice to them, agreeable to the laws and customs they had brought with them from their Mother-Country. And this internal police was so excellent in its nature, that it hath had the encomiums of most authors of our history.”

“THEY had a legislative authority in every tithing, which made laws and regulations for the good government of the tithing. Besides these, they had a court of law, whose jurisdiction was confined to the same limits. All which were created by the elective power of the people, who were resident inhabitants of the tithing; and the right of election, was placed in every man who paid his shot and bore his lot. From hence we may easily perceive, that, under the establishment of these tithings, by reason of their smallness, the natural rights of mankind might very well be preserved in their power by election without any confusion or inconvenience to the inhabitants.”

“THE first connection the tithings had with one another, was to form an establishment for the military defense of the country. For this end a number of these tithings were united together, so far as related to their military concerns. This union necessarily created a larger division of the land, equal to the number of tithings that were thus united; and this they called a wapentake or weapontake, and might take in as many tithings as would make a Brigade under a Brigadier General. Here likewise they established a court of council and a court of law, which last was called a wapentake court. In the court of council the chief magistrates of every tithing assembled to elect officers of the militia to their respective command, and regulate all matters relating to the militia; in which, every individual tithing was concerned. The court of law was to enforce these regulations within the jurisdiction.” “Let us now consider the third and last division, which they made of the land. This was composed of a certain number of wapentakes, united together; which they called a shire or one complete share or part into which they divided the land. This division completed their system of internal police; by uniting all the tithings within the shire into one body, subject to such laws and regulations as should be made in their shiregemots or shire parliaments; for the benefit and good government of the shire.”

“As this division comprehended many tithings and many people, so it had the greatest court of council in England except the high court of parliament; and the chief officer was vested with as high jurisdiction in the shire, as the king in the kingdom.”

“THEY had likewise a court of law, called the shire court; to which, I make no doubt every man might appeal who thought himself injured by the inferior courts in the shire. These divisions in the land, are what I call the skeleton of the constitution which was animated and put in motion by all these establishments.”

“WE may consider each shire as a complete government; furnished with both a civil and a military power within its own jurisdiction.”

“LET us now see by what mode of union, these shires became united together into a kingdom: and it will be found, I apprehend, that they pursued the same principles, which they had used in every other establishment. That is to say, wherever a combined interest was concerned and the people at large were affected by it, the immediate deputies of the people, met together to attend the respective interests of their constituents, and a majority of voices always bound the whole, and determined for any measure, that was supposed to operate for the good of the whole combined body. This meeting of the deputies of the people, was called by the Saxons the wittenagemote, or assembly of the wise men of the nation; which composed their national council and legislative authority.”

Contributed by Democratic Thinker.