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Unformatted text preview: ntain, that these wites or sapientes were the judges, or men learned in the law: The popular faction assert them to be representatives of the boroughs, or what we now call the commons. The expressions, employed by all ancient historians in mentioning the Wittenagemot, seem to contradict the latter supposition. The members are almost always called the principes, satrapae, optimates, magnates, proceres; terms which seem to suppose an aristocracy, and to exclude the commons. The boroughs also, from the low state of commerce, were so small and so poor, and the inhabitants lived in such dependance on the great men,u that it seems nowise probable they would be admitted as a part of the national councils. The commons are well known to have had no share in the governments established by the Franks, Burgundians, and other northern nations; and we may conclude, that the Saxons, who remained longer barbarous and uncivilized than those tribes, would never think of conferring such an extraordinary privilege on trade and industry. The military profession alone was honourable among all those conquerors: The warriors subsisted by their possessions in land: They became considerable by their influence over their vassals, retainers, tenants, and slaves: And it requires strong proof to convince us that they would admit any of a rank so much inferior as the burgesses, to share with them in the legislative authority. Tacitus indeed affirms, that, among the ancient Germans, the consent of all the members of the community was required in every important deliberation; but he speaks not of representatives; and this ancient practice, mentioned by the Roman historian, could only have place in small tribes, where every citizen might without inconvenience be assembled upon any extraordinary emergency. After principalities became extensive; after the difference of property had formed distinctions more important than those which arose from personal strength and valour; we may conclude, that the national assemblies must have been more limited in their number, and composed only of the more considerable citizens. But though we must exclude the burgesses or commons from the Saxon Wittenagemot, there is some necessity for supposing, that this assembly consisted of PLL v5 (generated January 22, 2010) 123 http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/695 Online Library of Liberty: The History of England, vol. 1 other members than the prelates, abbots, aldermen, and the judges or privy council. For as all these, excepting some of the ecclesiastics,w were anciently appointed by the king, had there been no other legislative authority, the royal power had been in a great measure absolute, contrary to the tenor of all the historians, and to the practice of all the northern nations. We may, therefore, conclude, that the more considerable proprietors of land were, without any election, constituent members of the national assembly: There is reason to think, that forty hydes, or between four and five thousand acres, was the estate requisite for entitling the possessor to this honourable privilege. We find a passage in an anci...
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- Spring '08