- Historic Sites
America: Curator Of British Political Relics
An English observer says our party workings, patronage, sheriffs., and grand juries are museum pieces from Britain’s past
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
In exploring the highways and byways of American politics, I have been drawn to the conclusion that there is more real conservation of ancient English institutions in the rich geological strata of American politics—at the state and county level, perhaps, even more than at the federal level—than there is in England itself. Americans come to Britain to see the roots of their political system in the past and find much to inspire them in symbols and relics and ritual and medieval mummery of one sort or another. But to see many historic British institutions working more robustly than they have worked in Britain for years and to rediscover the type of political conflict which characterized so much of British history, Englishmen should go to the New World. Many of the more bewildering and irritating features of American politics—the separation of powers between President and Congress, the odd two-party system which usually fails to polarize opinions—would be far less mysterious to Englishmen if they knew rather more than most of them do about their own political history.
Let me illustrate what 1 mean by a few concrete examples of institutions of sound English vintage, dead or moribund in England but of great practical importance in the United States. Here are three: the sheriff, the grand jury, the conference committees of Congress.
The sheriff and his posse—the old posse comitatus of the statute books—played a central role in Anglo-Saxon, medieval, Tudor, and Stuart local government and in western cowboy films. Connoisseurs of these will retail the sheriff and his specially sworn-in deputies, who charge frenziedly in the wake of the bad men, until, on the verge of overtaking them, they are obliged to pull up short on the county boundary. Sherilfs—high sherills and undersheriffs-do retain some vestigial powers in England; but they have nothing like the important position they used to have and which they still have in American counties. In many of the more decentralized American states “the government” for all practical purposes means the sheriff and the probate judge, both of whom are locally elected politicians. This helps to explain the extreme hostility in heavily Negro-populated counties in the South to letting the Negroes have the vote in any substantial numbers. Every state—even Mississippi —has a white majority over the whole state, but the rates are unevenly spread, and in several of the southern states votes for Negroes would probably mean in many counties Negro sheriffs and Negro judges.
In full line with medieval tradition the American sheriff is Irecjuentlv not only the law enforcement officer, but he is tax assessor and jailer into the bargain. In all these functions he and his deputies must somewhat respect the force of local opinion. When I was last in Wisconsin a deputy sheriff was sacked in the county I was visiting: first, because he had fed margarine to the prisoners—and Wisconsin is a great butter-producing state—ami only secondly because state officials wanted to see the prisoners, and the deputy sheriff took two hours to find the key.
A second example, and perhaps a more striking one, of an old English institution thriving in the New World is the grand jury, dead and buried in England by the Administration of Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1933, and dying on the vine for some time before. This is the old jury of presentment, with origins stretching back to the Henrician reforms of the twelfth century, and even beyond: the group of neighbors specially empaneled to tell of mysterious crimes, hold special inquiries, and indict suspected persons—still the main form of indictment in the United States. The American grand jury meets in private, has powers of subpoena over persons and papers. It has greatly expanded its authority to probe, when so charged by a judge, suspicious patterns of behavior that, when scrutiny is borne down on them, may yield indictments.
My third example is the conference committees of Congress. America is the only democratic country in the world in which the upper house has not lost strength in relation to the lower. Congress lias two houses of equal power—if anything the Senate is more powerful than the House of Representatives—in each of which legislation can be initiated. When different measures on the same subject pass the Senate and the House they have to be reconciled; the final wording which goes up for the President’s signature is hammered out, often after a great deal of hard bargaining, by managers who are appointed from each of the houses and who meet together in secret session. This is ancient British procedure. The legislation of the House of Lords and the House of Commons used to be reconciled in this way; but this process has died out in England because of the declining power of the House of Lords.