The Ancient Constitution in the Old World and the New
THE WORLD OF JOHN WINTHROP: ESSAYS ON ENGLAND AND NEW ENGLAND, 1588-1649, Francis J. Bremer, Lynn A. Botelho, eds., pp. 237-289, Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005
54 Pages Posted: 10 May 2007
Belief in the great antiquity and stability of England's constitution reached its highpoint in the early Stuart period, which also saw the beginnings of sustained New World colonization. Despite the conjunction of these events in time, historians have devoted little attention to ancient constitutionalist thought in the seventeenth-century American colonies. This essay makes a start in that direction. It begins by discussing the timing and causes of the emergence of ancient constitutionalism in Stuart England, and the uses to which the concept was put. With this background established, it then explores the rather different career of ancient constitutionalism in seventeenth-century Massachusetts.
Examined in long perspective, from 1620-1740, ancient constitutionalism in England receded in importance as contemporaries came to employ a more varied repertoire of political arguments. In relative terms, the influence of ancient constitutionalism traced a downward arc. But not in Massachusetts. The Bay Colony not merely fails to match this pattern, but reverses it. Ancient constitutionalism there traced an upward arc. Largely ignored in the 1630s and 1640s, it took on a new found importance in the 1680s and 1690s. This essay explores the curious uninterest in ancient constitutionalism among the first generation of Massachusetts settlers and the political and ideological reasons why they later embraced it.
Taken in broader perspective, the Massachusetts story suggests the value of studying the contrasting careers of ancient constitutionalism in the different colonies of the English transatlantic periphery. Scholars of English political history have explored the place of ancient constitutionalism in France, Scotland, Sicily, the Netherlands and other foreign lands in order to better understand its role at home. Expanding this comparative project within as well as outside of the English speaking world helps reveal the special characteristics of ancient constitutionalism in England. And it illuminates the shared commitmentsand the points of differencewithin the legal culture of the English Atlantic.
Keywords: legal history, colonial history, ancient constitution, political thought, early america, colonial america
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