Demophilus: Principles of the English Constitution: The Destruction

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.

“There cannot be a more dangerous doctrine adopted in a state, than to admit that the legislative authority has a right to alter the constitution.” This shrewd observation needs little to be said in proof of it. For as the constitution limits the authority of the legislature, if the legislature can alter the constitution, they can give themselves what bounds they please.

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 destruction of the Saxon mode of government by a combination of the clergy with William the bastard, duke of Normandy.

“BEFORE I proceed to observe the destruction that was made in the constitution, or mode of government, by the fatal union of the church with William of Normandy, I must not forget to take notice, that I have not given the clergy a place, in the Saxon parliaments; because they were foreign to the original institution, and only grafted themselves upon it, after it was established in England. But as they afterwards obtained a considerable share, both in the legislative authority and the administration of government, it may not be amiss to give some account how they came by it.”

“THE Roman Pontiff had already extended his plan of church power to a great degree; and the nature of the government introduced into Europe, by the northern nations, greatly contributed to his success. All history is full of the dreadful consequences, that have attended the baleful influence, which every religious hierarchy hath always had upon the bulk of mankind. And a government founded upon the elective power of the people, where their favor was the high road to riches, power and grandeur, gave a fine opportunity to such an artful designing set of men by their intrigues and influence, to procure themselves or their devotees to be elected into the chief magistracy of the country divisions. By this means they possessed themselves, in a great measure of the legislative authority; and consequently became, in proportion, the masters of the state. For whoever is master of the legislative authority in any state, is undoubtedly master of that state.”

“HAVING thus taken possession, as it were of the mansion, they were not long before they began to plunder it. However they first established, and secured the power of the church, by a variety of laws, made in her favor; and defended them by every ecclesiastical establishment, that papal cunning could invent. So that they were now prepared to receive, in the name of the church, all the riches, honors and power, which they could by any means obtain. And what is more, they knew too how to keep them when they had obtained them. For according to their maxim, whatever was given to the church, was given to God, and therefore was never afterwards subject to be taken away by any earthly power whatever.”

“THUS they endeavored to provide against all revolutions in the state, that the property of the clergy might be safe, under the name of the church. Upon this ground, the clergy have grafted themselves upon every state in Europe. And as they are plants that will grow in any soil, they have taken such deep root, that scarce any state, except Holland, has been so unfriendly to their vegetation, as to exclude them from having some share in government; though they have no more business with ours, as a separate body of men, than the company of apothecaries or parish clerks.”

“THE church continually acquiring riches and power, and never discharging either, it must follow that the clergy would, in a short time, be the richest and most powerful body in any state where they were thus established. Such was the situation of this kingdom, at the death of Edward the confessor; when England may be said to be governed by the power, and influence of the clergy. And we shall see, presently, how these shepherds betrayed their flocks, and surrendered them to the Norman tyranny.”

“UNDER all tyranny, whether of kings, or priests, or both, it is the people who are to be made the sacrifice; it is the people who are to be plundered of their property; it is the people who are to wear the yoke of slavery; it is they who are to be made the hewers of wood and drawers of water. But so long as the English government continued upon the original principles, upon which it was founded; and the people annually exercised their elective power; so long it was out of the power, either of the king or the clergy to commit any acts of violence, with impunity.”

“INDEED the clergy might recommend, and the people might consent to many things, that were wrong, and even ruinous in their consequences; yet the latter had always in their own hands, a correcting remedy for all their errors. It was this correcting power in the people, that hung, like a millstone, over the pride, and riches of the clergy; and made them apprehensive that, at some time or other, it would crush them to pieces; and put an end to all their schemes of authority riches and grandeur.”

“THE parliament in the reign of Edward the confessor, had given such a specimen of their correcting power, as was enough to shake the foundation of the papal chair; and that was by banishing Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury, as an incendiary and fomentor of divisions, between the king and his subjects, and appointing one Stigand, Archbishop in his room. By this they saw there was only one way to avoid the danger, and preserve and extend their tyranny over the people; and that was to destroy the elective power, and establish an arbitrary government in the state. This, they were so bold as to attempt, and so happy as to see effected by William the Bastard duke of Normandy; who in the year one thousand and sixty six, put an end to the Saxon mode of government, which had subsisted six hundred years from its first establishment.”

What is commonly called the conquest by William the first.

“WE are now come to that period of the English history, which contaminated the purity of the English constitution, or mode of government, with a despotic spirit, which time has not been able totally to eradicate.”

“AFTER the death of Edward the confessor, there were two candidates for the crown of England, which had always been elective, and continued so to this last Saxon king. The one was Harold, an Englishman of great natural abilities, much merit, and vastly beloved by the people; who had been elected chief magistrate of three shires, Kent, Sussex and Surry, at the death of his father earl Goodwin, who before him had held the same offices.”

“THE other was William the bastard duke of Normandy, who was a man of a warlike genius and a very powerful prince, whose dominions being situated opposite to our coast, rendered it more convenient for him, than for any other prince, to transport an army into England, and consequently to enslave the nation. For which reason no one who was a friend to his country, would ever think of electing a man, who would be so notoriously dangerous to it’s laws, liberty and constitution.”

“INDEED the dangerous consequence of his election was so apparent, that, tho’ the clergy had marked William for their man, yet they could not hinder the choice of Harold; and therefore he was elected king of England, by the wittenagemot or parliament; and was accordingly crowned next day by the Archbishop of York.”

“THE Pope, and William, finding themselves frustrated in all their previous intrigues and secret cabals, in obtaining the crown of England, for the latter, were resolved to obtain it by open force: but the states of Normandy having refused the duke an aid of money for the undertaking, he was obliged to have recourse to some other means for assistance. The pope, therefore, was now obliged to pull off the mask, and declare openly against England, and make a crusading business of it; which, was done with a view to encourage individuals to engage in the enterprize. And that all men might see that William was the champion of the church, he first made the duke a present of a consecrated standard, with a golden agnus dei, and one of Saint Peter’s hairs; and then solemnly excommunicated every man that should oppose him.”

“THE duke on his part offered the lands of England as a prize to be fought for, and to be divided amongst all those that should assist him in the conquest; by which means he engaged not only great numbers of his own subjects, but many of his neighbours to assist him. Thus the duke of Normandy was enabled to fit out a fleet and an army, with which he invaded England; and, on the 14th of October 1066, was fought the ever memorable battle of Hastings, in which the English army was routed, and king Harold slain; which flung the whole nation into confusion, and soon after procured the crown of England to William.”

“MORCAR and Edwin, two brave officers who distinguished themselves all that day in battle, retired in the night, with the broken remains of the army to London; in hopes to recover the people from their fright and consternation, and to apply some remedy to so pressing an evil. Historians observe, that, in all probability, they would have succeeded, if the treacherous behaviour of the clergy in London had not broken all their measures, by secretly caballing amongst the people. These two officers, and some others who were zealous friends to the liberty of their country, assembled the people; and represented to them, that the first thing to be done was to come out of that state of anarchy and confusion they were in, and immediately elect some person to the chief command. That Edgar Atheling was upon the spot, and one of the family of their ancient kings; and that no man could have any just objection against his advancement to the throne. That as soon as he should be proclaimed king, he would send orders to all parts of the kingdom to levy troops, and that the duke of Normandy should soon find to his cost, that the gaining a single battle was not sufficient to render him master of the kingdom. And to spirit up the people the more to action, they put them in mind how they had defended their country, inch by inch against the Danes, for a great many years; and had at last drove them out of the kingdom; and that there was no doubt but they would do the same by this new invader.”

“THE clergy knew that this was the critical moment, and that if they could but keep things a little longer in confusion, their business was done, and therefore they openly opposed every proposal of resistance. The declaration of the pope in favor of William was sufficient to induce all the clergy, then in London, with the two archbishops at their head, to cabal amongst the people in order to hinder Edgar’s election; which it so effectually did, that Morcar and Edwin seeing every proposal overruled, and dispairing of success, retired into the north to take their own measures.”

“THEY were no sooner gone, than the archbishop of Canterbury, the archbishop of York, the bishop of Winchester, and the clergy about London, and some say prince Edgar himself (by their persuasion) went to the duke at Berkhamstead and swore fealty to him; as if he had been already their lawful sovereign. Hence we may justly say, that the lives, liberty, and property of the people of England, were surrendered into the hands of the Normans, by the baneful interest of the clergy. For the city of London, following the example of the clergy, surrendered, afterwards the whole kingdom, without any further resistance.”

“THUS William the first obtained the crown of England by the favor of the clergy, and not by the power of the sword, as, they would seem to intimate, by his surname the conqueror. A name imposed upon him after his death, by the clergy, in order to screen the infamy of their own actions from posterity, that future generations might ascribe, the miserable state of the people, to the conquest of William, and not to the dark treachery of a body of men, who had, under the mask of religion, abused every trust of the confidence reposed in them; and betrayed their flocks, bound hand and foot, like sheep to the slaughter.”

“FROM this time, civil and religious tyranny, walked hand in hand, two monsters till then unknown in England; which are, equally, the common enemies to mankind, and have at all times, united against every principle of civil and religious liberty. This is the true origin of the alliance between church and state, so much contended for by some of our ecclesiastics; who have renounced the penances of popery, but would fain retain both its pride and its power.”

AND on the proceedings of Charles the first’s parliament, in the expulsion of the bishops, the same author observes,

“THAT it was their duty, as law makers, to remove from parliament, a body of men who had, constitutionally, no right there; and who had invariably, directed their whole influence, against every principle of civil and religious liberty; and were now particularly dangerous to the state.”

“IT is undoubtedly the most absurd and pernicious principle, that ever was received into any society of men, to permit the clergy of any denomination, to have the least distant share, or influence, upon the legislative authority of any nation. And had the motives of the house of Commons, for excluding the bishops from the house of Lords been as good as their motion, they would have done this kingdom a most essential piece of service; but their intent was only to pull down one nusance, in order to establish another almost as bad. Their business, as lawmakers, was to protect every man in his right of private judgment, in point of religion; and not suffer any set of men to dictate to others in a matter that merely subsists between God and a man’s own soul.”

—“Had they destroyed all ecclesiastical power, they had destroyed an evil in the state, and abundant matter of vexation. Had they protected all men alike, in their different modes of worshiping God, they would have taken away all just occasion of offence and established peace amongst men.”

NOTHING can be more evident, than the mischief that has ever followed the requisition of a declaration of faith in doctrines acknowledged to be above human comprehension, as a qualification for any civil trust.

To believe that God is, and a rewarder according to our works; is the firm foundation of natural and revealed religion; and tho’ he deigned to inform Moses, I AM, we find him pleased, at that time, to make no further discovery of himself. Neither are we hitherto convinced, that any, by searching, have found him out to greater perfection.

WHAT is here, faithfully quoted or modestly suggested, is intended to give no offence to any man, or body of men existing. In matters wherein all are concerned, it is the duty of all to give notice of any thing they conceive might be hurtful to the public, if suffered to pass without examination. It is a time when all the sagacity and diligence, all the temper and moderation of this vast Continent, is necessary to separate the precious from the vile.

WE are happy that such plain and salutary paths have been marked out before us. Whatever rubbish has been thrown into them, should be carefully removed, that, like wisdom’s ways, they may be pleasant, and conduct us to a secure and virtuous PEACE.

MEN entrusted with the formation of civil constitutions, should remember they are painting for eternity: that the smallest defect or redundancy in the system they frame may prove the destruction of millions.

ABOVE all things, the greatest care should be taken, that the persons who grant the public money, and should of course have the power of enquiring into its disposal, should have no hand in contracts; or any connection with persons thro’ whose hands the public treasure passes. A house of commons should indeed be the guardians of common right, and the interest of the public. Places, pensions and other emoluments, from the public treasury having, for near a century past, been open to British commoners, their power of bringing peculators to account, has been of no use to the oppressed people. They have indeed united with them, and formed such powerful factions as have bid defiance to the whole nation. By this means, the legislative and executive authority, which our wise and virtuous ancestors, carefully kept asunder, are become confounded together, in the hands of the same men. This has principally arisen from another fatal inattention of the people to the usurpations of their deputies, when they took upon them to alter the first principle of the constitution by acts of parliament.

“UPON this foundation, they may mould it into what shape they please; and in the end make us slaves by law. The house of commons are constituted, a body of men, merely passive, with regard to their creation, duration, and dissolution; and therefore have no consent to give to their own duration, even for an hour.”

“THERE cannot be a more dangerous doctrine adopted in a state, than to admit that the legislative authority has a right to alter the constitution.”

THIS shrewd observation needs little to be said in proof of it. For as the constitution limits the authority of the legislature, if the legislature can alter the constitution, they can give themselves what bounds they please.

IT is therefore, I beg leave to repeat, that after the approaching Convention has met, and settled the grand outlines of a constitution, let the legislature go on with the affairs of government, without sensible deviation from the obvious meaning of their digest; and whatever inconveniences may be found unprovided for, may be candidly advertised to the public, and amended by another Convention.

Contributed by Democratic Thinker.