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INTRODUCTORY, A KNOWLEDGE of the history, organization, and principles of the government under which he lives, must be beneficial to every man, wheresoever he may dwell, and under whatsoever form of government his lot may have been cast, and may be regarded as peculiarly advantageous in free states, where every citizen must possess an influence more or less powerful in the administration of public affairs. It is obviously indispensable where the political rights of all are equal, and where the obscurest individual has a voice in the election of his rulers, and is himself eligible to the highest stations in the government.
It was, therefore, with reason, considered a defect in the prevailing systems of education, that the study of our constitutional jurisprudence should have been either altogether omitted, or deferred to that period of life when our youth are called on to participate in the active duties of society, or that it should have been regarded only as necessary to lawyers and politicians. For, however essential as is a profound knowledge of the Constitution to statesmen and jurists, some acquaintance with its principles and details must, in the opinion of all who entertain liberal views of public education, and correctly estimate their privileges as citizens, be requisite for those whose ambition rises no higher than the mere exercise of those privileges at elec
tions of their representatives in the government, without a wish themselves for political influence or public station. It is gratifying to find, however, that of late years a greater interest has been manifested among the more intelligent portion of the community with regard to the origin, structure, and principles of our political institutions. This certainly evinces that one class, at least, of our citizens appreciates the value of our political system, and that so far, therefore, it is better understood.
But reason and common sense suggest that such information cannot be acquired too soon, and experience teaches us that it cannot be too widely diffused. The public interest and welfare, if not the stability of our political system, not less than the safety and happiness of individuals, and the security of their persons and property, require that, in common with other iniportant branches of public education, the knowledge in question should be extended to every portion, and, if possible, to every member of the body politic.
Until lately, it was a reproach to our college that it sent forth its graduates more familiar with the constitution of the Roman Republic, and the principles of the Grecian confederacies, than with the fundamental laws of their own country. To remedy this evil, it was proposed to ingraft this new branch of study upon the general course pursued in this institution; but in preparing my lectures I shall not lose sight of their possible usefulness to foreigners; for it will hardly be denied that more accurate information in regard to the organization and powers of the Federal Government is desirable in European statesmen, ministers, and lawyers, while their want of it is not only mortifying to our national pride, but prejudicial to our national interests. Much vexatious difficulty and fruitless negotiation would doubt
less have been prevented, had the public men of Great Britain and France been better informed in regard to them.
By way of introducing the subject to your notice, I shall present you with a rapid sketch of the origin and progress of the American Confederation, until it reached a result so auspicious as the establishment of the present Federal Constitution ; and this historical review will, I trust, prove the more useful, as it will serve not only to exhibit the genius and practical excellence of the government, but also to facilitate the study of its organization and powers.
While the American people were subjects of the British crown, and the elder of these states were as yet British colonies, it was perceived that their union was essential to their safety and prosperity. Both general and partial associations were accordingly formed among them for temporary purposes, and on sudden emergencies, long before their permanent union to resist the claims and aggressions of the mother-country, a measure which produced the Revolution, and ended in the acknowledgment of the colonies as free and independent states. The common origin and interests of the New England provinces, the similarity of their manners, laws, religious tenets, and civil institutions, naturally led to a more intimate connexion among themselves, and induced, at a very early period, the habit of confederating together for their common defence. These colonies, as far back as the year 1643, apprehending danger from the warlike and formidable tribes of Indians by which they were surrounded, entered into an offensive and defensive league, which they declared should be firm and perpetual, as well as that they should thenceforth be distinguished as “ The United Colonies of New. England.” In this transaction, the provincial gov
ernments, who were parties to it, acted, in fact, as independent sovereignties; and circumstances enabled and encouraged them to assume an exemption from the control of any superior power.
By the charters from the crown, under which they had been founded, and which prescribed their respective forms of government, and settled its fundamental principles, the people of those colonies were authorized, by the suffrages of the freemen of the several towns, to elect, not only their immediate representatives in the popular branch of their legislatures, but also the chief executive magistrate, or governor, and his assistants, or councillors, who formed a second and co-ordinate branch of those provincial assemblies. The supremacy, therefore, of the British crown or Parliament over the colonies in question had, at all times, been little more than nominal, in comparison with the authority exercised over those provinces, where the governors and councillors were appointed by the crown, and held their offices at its pleasure, and which in other respects, also, were kept in closer and more immediate subjection. The civil war in which Great Britain was at that time plunged occupied, moreover, her whole attention ; and this measure of her colonies, tending so directly to future independence, was suffered pass without much notice, and without
From the terms of this association, it may justly be regarded as the first step towards the establishment of independent government in America; with some occasional alterations, it subsisted for nearly half a century, and for a part of that time with the countenance of the British government; nor was it dissolved until the charters of the New-England provinces were, in effect, annulled by James the Second.
Subsequently, however, to that arbitrary procedure, congresses of governors and commissioners from the other colonies, as well as from New-England, were held from time to time, to consult on matters relative to their common welfare, and to adopt measures for the protection of the frontiers. An assembly of this description took place at Albany in 1722. But a more general and memorable convention was held at the same place in 1754, consisting of commissioners from all the New England colonies, and from the provinces of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
This Congress was called at the instance of the government in England; and although the object of the ministry in proposing it was merely to promote and facilitate the negotiation of treaties with the Indians, the colonial legislatures, who promptly acce. ded to the proposal, evidently entertained more extensive views with respect to the proceeding. Two of the provinces expressly instructed their delegates to enter into articles of confederation with the other colonies, for their general security in time of peace, as well as in war; and one of the first acts of the commissioners, when they assembled, was a unanimous resolution that a union of the colonies was absolutely necessary for their preservation. After rejecting several proposals for the division of the colonies into separate confederacies, they agreed to a plan of federal government for the whole, consisting of a president-general, to be appointed by the crown, and a general legislative council, to meet once in every year, and to be composed of delegates chosen tri. ennially, by the provincial assemblies.
This celebrated plan of union was draw up by Doctor Franklin, who attended as a delegate from Pennsylvania, and is to be found in the more recent