Anglospheric Continuity

The representative systems which sprang up as a part of the constitutional machinery of the several provincial states founded by English settlers upon American soil were in no proper sense the result of imitation. Like the states themselves of which they were a part, they were the predestined product of a natural process of reproduction. The constitutional history of these provincial states does not begin with the landing of the English in America in the seventeenth century, but with the landing of the English in Britain in the fifth. The English emigrants who founded upon the eastern coast of what is now the United States a group of colonial commonwealths brought with them in their blood and bone, and in a matured form, that peculiar system of political organization which had been slowly developing in the mother country for centuries. They brought with them ready made the language, the law, the institutions of the old land to be modified and adapted to the changed conditions of the new. The settlements made by the English colonists in America in the seventeenth century were in all material particulars substantial reproductions of the English settlements made in Britain in the fifth. In both instances the settlers crossed the sea in ships in small companies, and in both lands they grouped themselves together in distinct and practically independent self-governing communities.

Hannis Taylor, The Origin and Growth of the English Constitution, an Historical Treatise, In Which Is Drawn Out, By The Light Of The Most Recent Researches, The Gradual Development Of The English Constitutional System, And The Growth Out Of That System Of The Federal Republic Of The United States, in Two Volumes (1899)


Cross posted on America 3.0.

12 thoughts on “Anglospheric Continuity”

  1. The representative systems in England weren’t unique in their origins, composition, or operations. They were unique in their survival.

    Representative government was the rule in Latin Christendom until the need for larger and larger infantry armies on the Continent between 1450-1650 allowed many sovereigns to do away with it in the name of divine right absolutism. The United Provinces of the Netherlands were the major redoubt of traditional government and it was the Dutch Conquest of 1689 that finally rescued the English, Scottish, and Irish parliaments from possible oblivion. The republican governments of the United Provinces were snuffed out by the House of Orange with the aid of a Prussian army in 1787. The Netherlands didn’t have a similarly representative system of government again until 1848.

  2. Really, that argument is sentimental tosh. Far too little is known about the Dark Ages to let anyone demonstrate such a proposition.

  3. Actually, quite a bit is known about pre-Norman Conquest England these days. Whole books have been written about it. A very good presentation about what is known can be found in James Campbell’s The Anglo-Saxon State (

    “The power, sophistication, unity and wealth of the late Anglo-Saxon state have been underestimated. The shadow of defeat in 1066, and an assumption that the Normans brought about strong government and a unification that had not previously been there, has prevented many of the remarkable features of Anglo-Saxon society from being seen. In The Anglo-Saxon State James Campbell shows how strong, unified and well-governed Anglo-Saxon England was and how numerous and wealthy were its inhabitants. Late Anglo-Saxon England was also a country with a political class considerably wider than just the earls and thegns. William Stubbs’s vision of Anglo-Saxon England as a country with real representative institutions may indeed be truer than that of his denigrators. James Campbell’s work demands the rethinking of Anglo-Saxon history.”

    Better to light a candle than to curse the Dark Ages.

  4. Weren’t the Anglo-Saxon governmental forms continuations of the Germanic/Norse “thing”? These were assemblies of free people at the local level to resolve conflicts and make community decisions. This local “thing” then sent representatives to a higher level “thing” covering a larger area, and so on to the “althing” which covered the entire area ruled by that people. These were in operation, I believe, in the 100 AD time-frame, if not earlier.

  5. If we know one thing about one thing from the “dark ages”, it’s legal frameworks. If people cared about anything in the past, they cared about property law and the proper forms for the acquisition, maintenance, and disposal of the resource flows coming from property.

  6. The Dark Ages are all too often written off as a period of stagnation. In fact, fairly rapid progress was being made on practical subjects. The horse collar, the stirrup, crop rotation and the board plow were all innovations that radically affected the population and its health.

    The Black Death had an enormous effect on political rights since serfs often became freemen able to sell their services in a labor shortage. The sheep culture of the Cotwalds came from that labor shortage. Windmills in Europe differed from those in Arab land as they had the ability to rotate and therefore were more functional. There are hundreds of examples of innovation during the Dark Ages but many were practical to the peasant laborer and didn’t seem to make the history hooks.

  7. The English political system is not a survival from pre-Norman times. It is a result of a process that took hundreds of years to work out, and which had many non-Anglo Saxon participants. Both Parliament and the Common Law owe their institutional beginnings to the Plantagenet Kings, who were more French than English. Parliament to Henry III, and the rebellion led by Simon de Montfort and to Henry’s son Edward I, who needed a tool to secure the loyalty of the rebellious barons and the restive cities. The Common Law begins with Henry II, who spent most of his time in France. The common law courts and the Inns of the Court, the unique institutions that made the legal profession and the common law the force they were in England, began their careers speaking French.

    I would also not accept the idea that absolutism was a mechanical reaction to changes in the methods of warfare. Many of the 16th and 17th century innovations in military arts came from England and the Netherlands. The impulse to absolutism was a reaction to the Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion. France, at the Bourbon accession, was a shattered country. Absolutism was a strategy that the Bourbons followed in order to suppress internal rebellion and to strengthen their realms against the Hapsburgs of Spain and the Empire.

  8. “Both Parliament and the Common Law owe their institutional beginnings to the Plantagenet Kings.”


    Patrick Wormald shows the common law started in the reign of Alfred. As to parliament, representative assemblies existed as far back as we have written records. You are incorrect on these.

    However, you would be correct to say that the common law took on a distinct form under the Norman rulers, which is well documented in, among other places, Joseph Strayer’s book On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State.

    William I had judges who spoke French because they were Normans. And they law they tried to apply was the existing law because William wanted to make a peaceful transition, confirm his own legitimacy, and secure maximum revenue for his crown. He succeeded. But he did not impose a foreign law on the English.

  9. Read Campbell.

    Normans are not what we currently understand as French, i.e., Parisian. The Normans themselves had become French-speaking but their family systems were still largely Scandinavian, and their law was essentially Norse law, with some Roman-French additions. Roman law had not replaced Norman customary law there at the time of William, and it had a lot in common with English law. Montesquieu studied old Norman law carefully, as he had access to original sources, many of which were subsequently destroyed in the French Revolution.

    It is correct that the Germanic tradition of the Thing, or assembly of all military-capable free men, survived in Scandinavia, Switzerland, and in various forms in the British Isles. It was one of the strands of the origin of Parliament, and also survives in its direct descendant, the Tynwald, the governing assembly of the Isle of Man. You can also go to Switzerland and watch the annual meeting of the cantonal Landesgemeinde, which is essentially the same Thing, so to speak, and is still the actual legislature in several of the smaller cantons.

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