Demophilus: Principles of the English Constitution: The Monarchy

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.

While all kinds of governmental power reverts annually to the people, there can be little danger of their liberty. Because no maxim was ever more true than that, WHERE ANNUAL ELECTION ENDS, SLAVERY BEGINS.

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

Under the Monarchy.

“I HAVE already remarked that a number of the Saxon tribes, while in their own country, were united together for their mutual protection and defence. In like manner was our Heptarchy connected; and their mode of union became a part of the constitution, when the seven kingdoms united together under one king. The matter was simply this: one of the seven kings was always chosen generalissimo over the whole body; and they appointed him a standing council of a certain number of deputies, from each state, without whose advice and concurrence, it is probable he could not act.”

“HOWEVER I do not mean to make any observation upon the powers vested in this standing council; but only to point out that body of men as the origin of our house of lords. Those deputies who composed this great standing council, were appointed to their trust by the joint consent of the king and parliament of the little kingdom from whence they were sent. And when Alfred the great, united the seven kingdoms into one, he undoubtedly, with the approbation of the people, incorporated this great council as a separate branch of the wittenagemote or parliament; so that they still continued to be the king’s great council, and a branch of the legislative authority, which they are at this day. In confirmation of which, it is observable, that the consent of the parliament continued necessary for creating a baron of the realm about as low down as Henry the Seventh; which is the only title by which any man can obtain his seat in our House of Lords; and not as Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, &c.”

“IT is needless to mention that after the union of the seven kingdoms under Alfred, a reduction of the members to serve in parliament became absolutely necessary, because it was then impracticable, by reason of their numbers, for the same members to attend, in one parliament, that used to attend in seven, without such anarchy and confusion as must counteract the end of their meeting.”

“NATURE herself has confined, or limited the number of men in all societies, that meet together to inform and be informed, by argument and debate, within the natural powers of hearing and speech. So that the question in this case must have been how to reduce the representatives of the people in parliament, to be a convenient number, to transact the business of the nation; and at the same time, to preserve the elective power of the people unhurt? a question of no small difficulty to determine, considering the various interests that were affected by it.” And how was this effected?

OUR historian informs us; “they excluded from this parliament, all the representatives of the rural tithings, as being a body of men the most numerous of any, considered collectively, and yet elected by the fewest people in proportion, which, must be very evident, since the rural part of the kingdom must be more thinly inhabited than the towns. Besides the town tithings or boroughs, where a great number of inhabitants are collected together, upon a small compass of ground, were undoubtedly, the most conveniently situated, for the commodious exercise of the elective power of the people. And the towns, being few in comparison of the rural tithings, and at the same time dispersed over the whole country, were best adapted to receive the regulations they intended to make in their plan of forming the constituent parts of the new parliament.”

“THO’ the barons of the realm being great freeholders, carried into parliament the greatest concern for the interest of the rural part of the kingdom; yet not being elective, they were not such a body of men as the constitution, and the safety of the inhabitants of the rural tithings required. And therefore, they constituted shire elections, for two members, to represent the shire in parliament, and those representatives were the origin of our knights of the shire.”

“The barons of the realm, and the knights of the shires, I consider as two bodies of men that were substituted, at the establishment of the monarchy, under Alfred the Great, in place of those representatives that used to serve under the Heptarchy for the rural tithings. The alteration that was made with respect to the towns and boroughs was simply this: that all boroughs that used to send one member to the little parliament, to which they belonged, under the Heptarchy, should for the future send two to the great parliament of England.”

FROM the above concise view of the Saxon affairs, it is plain, that in their own country, and for many years after they settled in England, they maintained that natural, wise and equal government, which has deservedly obtained the admiration of every civilized age and country. In their small republics, they often met in council upon their common concerns; and being all equally interested in every question that could be moved in their meetings, they must of course be drawn in to consider, and offer their sentiments of many occasions. It is from the prevalence of this custom among the savages, that they have been enabled to astonish our great lawyers, judges and governors, commissioned to treat with them, by displays of their sublime policy. By Alfred’s constitution, all occasions for exercising these talents were cut off from the body of the people: the making and amending of laws, being in a manner entirely referred to that great deliverer and his sublime council, whose wisdom and honesty were implicitly confided in by the whole nation; and at the same time distributive justice, was so uprightly administred by his commissioners of the peace, the men fell into a political stupor, and have never, to this day, thoroughly awakened, to a sense of the necessity there is, to watch over both legislative and executive departments in the state. If they have now and then opened their eyes, it is only to survey, with silent indignation, a state from whence they despair of being able to recover themselves. Fixed establishments on the one hand, rooted habits and prejudices on the other, are not easily got over. Power, like wealth, draws many admirers to its possessor: and tho’ all men will confess, that, without a check, it is dangerous in any community, they often flatter themselves, that the rising Augustus, having smiled upon them, in his early adventures, they (in particular) have nothing to fear from him, and therefore will not oppose him.*

* For an example of such fatal policy, read the history of the famed Marcus Tullius Cicero.

THIS Colony, having now but one order of freemen in it; and to the honor of Pennsylvania, but very few slaves, it will need but little argument to convince the bulk of an understanding people, that this ancient and justly admired pattern, the old Saxon form of government, will be the best model, that human wisdom, improved by experience, has left them to copy.

To effect which,

LET the first care of our approaching Convention be to incorporate every society of a convenient extent into a Township, which shall be a body politic and corporate by itself, having power of electing annually by ballot a town-clerk to record all the public proceedings of the township, town council &c.—to draw up, sign, and issue warrants by order of the town-council for calling two meetings, and transact all such public business as the laws of the colony shall point out as his duty.—A town council consisting of five or seven respectable men, the major part of whom shall be a quorum, invested with full power to manage the affairs and interest of the town; and to order warrants to be issued for calling annual town meetings on such days as shall be stated for that purpose, by law, and occasionally, on the petition of ten or more freemen of the town, setting forth the cause of the requested meeting.—A town treasurer—a town sealer of weights and measures—assessors—collectors—overseers of the poor—constables—pound keeper—sealer of leather—surveyors of highways—fence viewers—gaugers—and all such other officers as have been or may be found necessary and shall be instituted by the present or any future convention appointed to amend the constitution of this colony.

APPROACHING that gulph, where all former projectors have found their systems shipwrecked, I shall, with becoming diffidence, propose a method of conducting elections, which I presume will be found a considerable improvement upon Harrington’s plan.

AFTER seating all the qualified electors in pews or squares by themselves, let them be numbered, and a box handed round to receive nomination tickets for the officers to be chosen. These tickets being sorted and numbered, let the clerk enter the names of the proposed candidates; beginning with his, who has the highest number of tickets; and thus proceed ’till all are entered. Where there are ties, let one ticket of each be taken and shaken in a hat, to be drawn out in fair lot and registered. Then in this order let the name or names, being first read over distinctly, be proposed by the Moderator, and balloted for by the bean; and if the first name fails of a majority of yeas, let the next in course be put, ’till the choice is made.

TO render this mode of voting as fair and convenient as possible, let beans, or balls of opposite colors, be wrapped in small pellets of the same sort of paper, and one of each sort served to every voter. By opening the paper a little, the elector sees the color; returns the paper to its former condition, and drops which he pleases in the bag, first holding it up between his thumb and finger, that the collector may see there is but one; by proceeding in this manner, a corrupt influence can hardly be exercised; which cannot be said of the common custom of balloting. Besides very little writing is needfull: and when the whole meeting is told that white is yea and black nay, every one is alike knowing in the exercise of his elective power, without having occasion to recur to any man for advice or assistance.

FOR the first election of a governor, deputy-governor, secretary &c. it may be well for the Convention, to send out a nomination to the respective towns or districts; as the persent urgency of public affairs requires that no time be lost ’till an established government be erected.

FOR the future, as all debates will undoubtedly be held in public, the consideration of warlike matters being best managed by Committees, the body of the people will soon become acquainted with the true characters of the delegates, and will continue or withdraw their confidence accordingly.

THE judges of the supreme judicatory should be nominated by the Governor and executive council, and balloted for by the Assembly.

THE Conservatores, or justices of the peace should, according to ancient custom be again elected by the districts; and to carry the salutary practice throughout, the justices thus chosen, should, soon after their election, meet at the county town, and ballot for the judges of the county court, the clerk and solicitor for the peace, in the county.*

* This I conceive the proper title of the officer lately called King’s Attorney.

ALL judiciary officers should have moderate salaries; and that they might be encouraged to apply their minds to gain a thorough knowledge of their important business, they should have in their commissions, an estate for life, provided they did not forfeit it by misbehaviour.

JUDGES of the probate of wills, registers of conveyances, deputy-coroners, and officers of such importance to the people, should be established in every convenient district; it being a great hardship, for people in narrow circumstances, to travel far, to have business of so pressing a nature performed for them.

SHERIFFS, coroners, county treasurers, and all such county officers, can be elected no other way, with so much convenience, as to ballot by ticket, in each district, and to send the tickets to the townsmen of the shire-town by a sworn officer, under the seals of the respective moderators, where the votes are taken. And should the tickets, when sorted and numbered, fail to afford any one name, balloted for, a clear majority of votes, that is, that one half, more by one vote, for some certain person, than all the rest; the bench of justices for the whole county being for that purpose summoned by the clerk of that township, should meet, and for that year, supply the place of the officer, thus failing of appointment, by nomination and ballot as before described.

A STANDING grand jury, conducing much to the peace and good order of society, twenty four members for each county should be annually chosen, in the respective districts, as the representatives; having proper regard to the proportion belonging to each district, to serve for the whole year, and watch over the behaviour of the people.

TRAVERSE juries, should be drawn from a box, furnished annually, with the names of all nonexempt freeholders, written each fairly on a ticket, shaken together, and taken by lot.

JURORS serving one year, should be exempt the two following.

NOTWITHSTANDING it may be difficult to find men properly qualified to sustain every office proposed to be established in each district; yet the electors should be supremely careful, never to heap offices or indeed confer more than one on the same person. No governor, counsellor, representative, sheriff, coroner, attorney at law, or clerk of the peace should ever be a justice of the peace. Neither, should any one in the executive departments, civil or military, have a seat in the legislature.

SALARIES and fees ought to be competent: that able men may not be deterred from accepting them, nor covetous men conceive them a bait. The latter condition of salaries has been the evident ruin of England; while those Commonwealths who have preserved a strict economy in that respect, continue happy and flourishing.

“IF we were to select the attributes of good government, we should find them to consist in wisdom and justice. And if we could divide those virtues, from all bad qualities, in men, and place such men, and such only, to rule over us, we should establish an heaven upon earth. The power of election which our government hath diffused thro’ the whole nation, will always produce this happy effect, when left to operate according to its genuine principles. For by dividing the country into small parts, as our tithings were, the character of every man, that was fit to bear an office, was well known amongst his neighbours. And therefore, when the choice of an officer to preside over them was their object of election, the concurrent sentiments of an uninfluenced majority, of a multitude of people, would naturally fall upon those men only, who were most eminent for their wisdom and justice.”

THE best constructed civil government that ever was devised, having but a poor chance for duration, unless it be defended by arms, against external force as well as internal conspiracies of bad men, it will be the next concern of the convention, to put the colony militia on the most respectable footing.

THE Militia is the natural support of a government, founded on the authority of the people only.

AND to render both the people and the government, perfectly free from any jealousy of each other, it seems proper that the associators should have the choice of all officers immediately commanding them, inclusive of their respective captains—that deputations from a convenient number of companies, consisting both of officers and privates, should ballot for their field officers, and that the legislature should appoint every general officer.

AND at length, to come to that dangerous, but necessary engine of state, a standing army, whose operations must be conducted with all possible secrecy and dispatch; and for that reason, must be entrusted in few hands; I would propose that a committee of three gentlemen be chosen by joint ballot of the governor, council, and assembly, to be called the committee of war; and to have the conducting of all military affairs, under the direction of the governor and privy council, to whom in matters of great importance, they should always have recourse: but being competent in lesser matters, business would be less subject to delay. This committee being the joint choice of the whole legislature, and by them removeable annually, or at any time, on conviction of misbehaviour, would have a sufficient confidence placed in them, and yet no power that might become dangerous to the liberty of the people.

WHILE all kinds of governmental power reverts annually to the people, there can be little danger of their liberty. Because no maxim was ever more true than that, WHERE ANNUAL ELECTION ENDS, SLAVERY BEGINS.

HAVING, in as brief and particular a manner as I was able, in the very short time allotted me, deduced the general outlines of a free government from the purest fountain yet known to man; it may not be uninteresting to give a short extract of the history of [continues without break ]

Contributed by Democratic Thinker.