« AnteriorContinuar »
should bring all his men, capable of bearing arms, into his service. The people were permitted to cultivate the lands of the barons on the condition that they, too, should do military as well as other service in behalf of their liege lords, in case of need.
The common people were called serfs, and were little more than slaves, being completely subject to the power of their masters. They were, however, permitted to live upon the lands of the chiefs, and though often treated with cruelty, and sometimes suffering the most degrading outrages, they were generally supplied liberally with the necessaries of life.
It was about the year 480, that Clovis became king of France, the government being based upon the feudal system. This monarchy continued to increase in power, until it became established, and has ever since been one of the leading powers of Europe.
In Germany and the north of Europe, kingdoms continued to be established on a feudal basis, from the fifth to the twelfth century, until at last all parts of this quarter of the globe were subject to feudal monarchies, except Ireland, Italy, Greece and Turkey. In all these latter countries, absolute despotism, on the Asiatic plan prevailed, except in Ireland, where the people appear to have had something like representation in the government.
About the fourteenth century, arts revived and commerce began to flourish in Europe. These introduced a new era of light, and the vassals of the feudal lords at last discovered that while they were men, the lord was himself nothing more than
a man. From that period there was a gradual, but slow advancement, toward political truth and the breaking down of feudal bondage. This progress was more rapid in England than in any other country, but even there, it crept with reluctant steps; for it was the interest, and the endeavor, of her kings and priests, desirous of still holding their sway over the people, to prevent them from discovering their rights and their real power.
The first settlers of America came here, bringing with them the political discoveries which had been made in England; having nothing to cloud their minds, they soon enjoyed the broad sunshine of political liberty, which belongs to man as his birthright. This glorious illumination resulted, finally, in the separation of the colonies from England and the independence of America. The success of our government in making a people prosperous and happy, has shaken down the French monarchy, to be rebuilt, indeed, but with no feudal attributes. It has done much to modify the institutions of England, and to infuse principles of liberty into every other monarchy of Europe.
BEFORE I proceed to give an account of our American government, it may be well to look a little more particularly into some of the leading governments of Europe. We will begin with that of France.
This monarchy began with Pharamond, who led into France, as has been stated, a tribe of Franks, about 420, who there established themselves.' Clovis, one of his successors, who began his reign in 480, having established his government and adopted Christianity, is sometimes regarded as the founder of the kingdom.
The system of government was entirely feudal; the barons being held dependant upon the crown, and the whole people remaining in a state of vassalage to the barons. Pepin the Short reduced the petty kings, occupying the country beyond the limits of the dominion of his predecessors; and his son, Charlemagne, who flourished about the year 800, conquered nearly the whole of Germany.
The successors of Charlemagne did not exercise dominion beyond the present limits of the kingdom, but France was now one of the leading powers of Europe, and it rapidly advanced in population, refinement, and wealth. In the progress of time, the power of the king greatly increased, while that of the barons was gradually reduced. There was, however, in this process, little or no advancement toward the enjoyment of liberty on the part of the people.
Louis XIV., called the great, was one of the most powerful and accomplished sovereigns of France, and the period of his reign is esteemed the highest point of glory in the history of the monarchy. He came to the throne in 1642, at the age of four years, and reigned 73 years. His life was divided between efforts for the enlargement of his dominions by conquest, and devotion to every species of pomp and luxury.
It was this king who built the palace of Versailles, which was, and still is, one of the wonders of human art. The sums of money squandered upon this edifice, and the gardens and furniture attached to it, amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars; yet this palace is now either a burthen, or a useless appendage to the throne of France.
The kings of this country had been, hitherto, little less than absolute, and the nobility possessed almost the wealth and power of princes. These had engrossed nearly all the lands, except the royal domains; and the tenants of these were still but vassals, subject to their despotic lords, and treated by them almost with as little feeling of justice as if they had been beasts of burthen.
The king exercised the most arbitrary sway over all classes of the nation. He could take the lives of even the greatest nobles, if not without the form of trial, at least without the shadow of justice. He had but to command his ministers to make out a warrant, and, signing his own name, it was sufficient to send the proudest peer in the realm to the Bastile or the block.
The Bastile was a gloomy castle in Paris, built in 1383; and perhaps a better idea of the tyranny of the government cannot be given, than by a sketch of the history of this famous prison. Persons were shut up in this horrid dungeon by the authority of lettres de cachet; that is, letters of arrest, written in the king's name, with blanks for the name of individuals; these were filled up by the ministers who possessed these letters.
Heads of families among the nobility, who wished to confine any member of the family, claimed the privilege of confinement by a lettre de cachet, and this privilege was next claimed by the ministers of government, to be used for the punishment of refractory servants and others.
It will be easily conjectured that it was not long before unprincipled ministers abused this right, by imprisoning worthy persons, who, in the actual discharge of their duties, had incurred the