Page images

influence on the laws and institutions of Alfred, but in the twelfth century Henry I. was compelled to acknowledge them in form. For more than a century these laws were mere shadows of good things. Then flashed upon the eyes of mankind the immortal transaction of Runemede, re-enthroning sacred principles, breaking the arm of tyranny, and delivering back to every Englishman his birthright. "Magna Charta" is the magic phrase which makes the freeman's blood leap merrily. This is the morning star, ushering in the full-orbed sun which soon was to take its throne in the midst of the heavens, the light and guide of all nations. The reader is too well acquainted with this portion of English history, to render it necessary to enter much into detail. The importance of this transaction is incalculable, although for ages it did not seem to produce very striking results. But this is only an apparent inefficiency. The demands therein granted, and the principles established, are like the glorious luminaries of heaven; clouds may conceal them for a time, but the clouds will be rolled away, and those stars beam upon man kindly and hopingly. And no thanks to King John. The destiny of the age was upon him, driving him onward to what he abhorred. A life of horrid and unnatural crime, makes his last words, as uttered by the great bard, emphatic :

"Within me is a hell; and there the poison
Is, as a fiend, confined to tyrannize
On unreprievable, condemned blood;"

and yet the reign of John will ever be clothed in brightness, because then the tide of human affairs set strongly toward freedom.

Time will not permit us more than to glance at the influence of the "wars of the roses," in cutting off and crippling an overshadowing nobility, unfriendly to the cause of human emancipation. Nor can we do more than allude to another most important cause, big with results to our race, the reign of the Tudors. This produced in one class of society an imbecile and servile spirit, fawning to the despotic encroachments

of these sovereigns; but in another and larger class, this despotism kindled a spirit which defied tyranny, cherished freedom, lifted itself loftily amid the howling tempest which swept. over the land, and clung, with a grasp, like that on life, to the high gifts of God. Indeed, this was the fiery cradle in which were nursed and baptized the vindicators of freedom in the old world, and the sublime messengers of freedom to the


There is one important element more, contributing not a little to bring society to the point at which we have now arrived. "Charlemagne," to use the words of an elegant writer, "expired like a meteor, that, having broken suddenly upon the night of ages, and blazed brilliantly over the whole world for a brief space, fell, and left all in darkness even deeper than before." But in the great chain of causes, sweeping on to a splendid consummation, this reign was not useless. From its ruins sprang into life Chivalry, like a goddess full-armed and mighty, and for centuries numbering among her followers the noblest, the wisest, the bravest. The human mind, crushed and bruted, but like a drowsed giant starting up from slumber, was awaking to a sense of the fearful wrongs it had suffered, and put forth mighty but undisciplined efforts in the cause of vindication. Those efforts produced the age of chivalry, to act an important part in the world's history. The bigoted may contemplate this movement with a sneer, the unthinking may class all the sons of chivalry among the wild schemers of mankind; but the more ridiculous do they appear for their pains. For the wants of mankind called this system into life, the spirit of the age gave it birth; and having fulfilled its destiny, it passed from the stage. But let no man say that such a system is to be sneered at as the Don Quixotte of Christendom-that men who for centuries were the only champions of human rights, have deserved nothing better than a silly jeer. That system did not act an unimportant part in the upward march of society, which did so much to elevate woman to her rightful position, and exemplified before the world the thrilling truth that merit, and not the factitious circumstances of wealth or

high birth, constitutes Nature's patent to her highest nobility. With this may also be classed the Crusades, uniting the nations of Christendom for the attainment of a common object, and giving a powerful impulse to civilization throughout the world.

These causes, with those previously specified, contributed materially to the state of society found in England at the death of the maiden queen. This brings us to the next link in the chain, English Puritanism. Whatever may be said of particular men in this party, when Hume and Clarendon are forced to trace British freedom to this party, we shall not shoot far wide from the mark in asserting the Puritans to be among the noblest defenders of human rights. Among large classes it has been fashionable to sneer at the cant phrases of Puritanism, and to denounce contemptuously the fanatic Roundheads. But it may with reason be asked, whether it be right to denounce a system because its followers indulged in a few cant phrases, or wore hats and coats of a particular shape, or had their hair trimmed in a particular manner; nor are the noblest principles of freedom to be sneered at as cant, because some of their vindicators, in the rush of events, did things not to be justified.

Take the two antagonist principles which then grappled in fierce conflict, irresponsible despotism and human freedom; glance your eye along the men ranked under the opposed banners. On the one side stands Charles I., a man of no great importance except as the representative of civil despotism; on the other is seen Oliver Cromwell, in appearance a despot, but establishing principles to this day the glory and boast of England, and adding a lustre to her name brighter than ever shone from the deeds of Nelson or Wellington; a man of surpassing genius, and whose real glory is yet unrecorded; whose genius and national policy shall at some future period raise him high on the throne of human gratitude, whilst such as Charles I. are reduced to their own proper level. On the one side behold Laud, the bigoted representative of exclusive prelacy; on the other John Milton, the loftiest genius in the world of poetry, and the pure-hearted worshipper of prin

ciples emanating from Deity. Under the one banner, you count up a host of debauched cavaliers, with here and there at noble name to relieve the eye; whilst under the other banner you view a multitude of men, who, with all their cant and bigotry, as a body practise rigid morality; in whose soul is enshrined the deepest reverence for God, and next to this, the love of liberty; men willing to sacrifice fortune and blood to secure to themselves and mankind civil freedom and "freedom to worship God." Look at these parties, and judge ye which is the noblest. It is a loftier honor to be enrolled with such as Cromwell, and Pym, and Hampden, with such as Milton, and Baxter, and Howe, than to mount the loftiest throne, to be lauded by a thousand Clarendons and Humes!

It would be a miracle indeed if some excesses were not committed. But let it be remembered, that civil and religious despotism had long dammed up the current of freedom; and when the barriers could no longer restrain the accumulating waters, singular indeed would it be if the rushing tide had not for a time threatened the annihilation of all that was beautiful and desirable. But a mightier than human arm directed and controlled that impetuous torrent, and produced glorious things for man. The excesses may not be apologized for, but may be palliated by the circumstances of the case. But these do not demand attention in this sketch. who were the men, and what their principles, who founded the Republic of the New World. It would be no uninteresting task to trace English Puritanism as it has been progressing in the mother country, and to exhibit its awaking and energizing power at this very moment; but this would be stepping aside from our original design. We now turn to the last step taken in the progress of the third great experiment in government, as exhibited in American Democracy.

Here we wish to know

English Puritanism was the fruit of experiments made beneath the frowning despotism of deep-rooted customs and tyrannical government. Under the shade of these it could not reach its maturity; but that God who is "in history" had reserved a continent free from incumbrances, where it might grow luxuriantly, and without restraint.

It was an occasion of no ordinary interest, when the Pilgrims received from the venerated Robinson his last words of advice and comfort. It was an occasion of no ordinary interest, when the same man of God baptized the infant nation of the New World in prayer, solemn and effectual, and invoked from Heaven the inspiring breath of immortality. The loftiest heroism was displayed. The passionate grief of friends, the untried ocean, the unbroken wilderness, the dreadful savage, the grim spectres of disease, famine, and death, moved them not in the least. The prophetic mantle had fallen upon them; and in the distant future they seemed to seize the outlines of perfect, governmental beauty, such as never before had visited the earth. They walked by faith, and the present, crowded as it was to excess with sorrows, was not regarded. Indeed, so mighty was the resolve of their souls, that for a time they seemed contending against an overruling Providence. The blasts of winter and the howling tempest withstood them, but even here they triumphed.

And now we remember one scene around which concentrated the gathering interest of all the previous experiments. It is that which took place in the cabin of the Mayflower. National government was now to combine in one the different principles evolved by other nations. The treasure-house of nations poured out its precious deposits. The Pilgrims were not alone in that assembly. Grecian Democracy, beautiful exceedingly, was there; Roman Law, with its relentless sceptre, was there; the great Lawgiver of the Jews was there, to plead the cause of the noble principle he had received direct from Heaven; Charlemagne and Alfred, and the heroes of the Magna Charta, with a host of valiant champions for human freedom, were congregated in that august assembly. That was a moment in which high destinies "hung balanced." The Pilgrims were the delegated representatives of two hundred generations of governmental experimenters. The responsibilities of the past and the destinies of the future hung on them. The high-minded lovers of mankind in by-gone years, as a cloud of witnesses," bent an anxious gaze on the legislators of the New World. And well did they discharge the

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »