- 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
These three instances of English history in American institutions stand out, but there are many other illustrations of my thesis, particularly at the state and local level. There is lee-paying, a central feature of medieval justice. I was fascinated to discover that in Illinois and a few other states the justices of the peace, who are elected politicians, take a commission percentage on the fines they impose; these are the old fruits of justice about which early law books waxed witty. And the sheriff’s is, in the majority of cases, a lee-paid job. He gets a lee every time he assesses property, conveys a prisoner from jail to the courtroom, and so on. Out of this income lie has to meet expenses—maintenance of the jail, hiring deputy sheriffs and assessors—and he usually ends up with a handsome profit. One rather battered professional politician in a middle western county told me during the 1951 election that his nomination by his party lor the office of sheriff was the reward for a lifetime of political drudgery, “shaking hands and ringing doorbells,” and that if elected he would clear a profit of $30,000 a year for four years.
All up and down America one comes across local government officials whose titles and duties or absence of them have more meaning to a medievalist than to a student of modern British government; though I do not want to overstate the case and imply that in the preservative American air none of these ancient offices ever expires of inanition. There was an election in April of last year, lor example, in a county in Florida in which there were two candidates for the office of constable; one promised that if elected he would find some functions lor the office, the other that if elected he would do absolutely nothing at all. The second candidate won—hands down.
The rotten borough, a far-off historical joke in England, does not seem so distant when one comes across the Atlantic. Perhaps there is no complete American equivalent to Old Sarum whose lour voters were the butt of every attack on the franchise system in England before the reforms of 1832. But there is one “inhabited town” of forty people which sends a representative to the legislature of Vermont. And a study of the apportionment of state legislatures in general will make the English political historian feel much more at home than in present-day England, with its constituencies scrupulously bounded by an impartial commission according to the arithmetic of population.
Moreover, the states tend to preserve that old-fashioned preference for coun, try over city opinion for which the Duke of Wellington fought so rugged a rear-guard action in the last years of the unreformed Parliament. Before 1832 the two knights who were returned from each English county, no matter what its population, had infinitely more prestige in Westminster than the mere burgesses from the boroughs, whose numbers were artificially kept low. Borough members would resign from the House in order to contest a county seat that fell vacant. How very English, of pre-Reform Bill vintage, was the spirit of the recent remark by Senator Raymond Gillespie, of the Iowa state senate, who explained his opposition to reapportionment by saying: “I think the people in the rural areas think straighten We’re more like plain Americans. We’re not dominated by labor and radicals.”
As for the judicial branch of government it is not merely the grand jury that keeps British tradition alive. Until 1947 there was a perfect specimen on American soil of the old English court system, refined through the Middle Ages, whose dilatory glories were so piously tended by Lord Eldonand whoseobfuscations were chronicled in Dickens’ Bleak House . This was in New Jersey, which had the most backward judicial system of all the states and since the new constitution of 1947 now has the most advanced. A member of the constitutional convention which wrought the changes told me that he and his colleagues had to be briefed by medieval historians about the existing structure because it was too ancient and complicated to be understood by the judges themselves. Although New Jersey’s judiciary is now streamlined, as the British courts have been for nearly a century, parts of the old English system can still be found in many other states. One can find, as one cannot now in England, separate chancery courts for handling cases in equity. And the use of feudal law in land cases is much more likely to be encountered in an American state than in “the old country.” In England practically all remaining feudal law was abolished in 1925 at the instance of a famous lord chancellor who, while at Oxford, had sworn to do away with “the rule in Shelley’s case” when his inability to remember it had cost him a coveted academic distinction.