Political Ideas of the Teutons. The Teutonic invaders who overthrew the empire not only added young, vigorous, and healthy population to the decadent Roman people, but brought with them certain political ideas and institutions quite different from those prevalent in the Roman world. They placed a high value on personal independence and emphasized the importance of the individual man as compared with the state. This was manifest in the proud spirit of the individual warrior. It was also illustrated in their idea of criminal justice.
The wrong-doer was not punished by the public authority; the injured person took the punishment into his own hands. Even when the Teutonic states began to punish crime, they did not interfere with the liberty of the freeman. They imposed a money fine, part of which went to the injured person to satisfy his rights in the case. Moreover, all their early governments contained decidedly democratic elements. The unit of public life was the individual, not the state.
These ideas combined readily with the teachings of Christianity, which also emphasized the independence and supreme worth of the individual. Although in economic and religious organization this idea largely disappeared in the Middle Ages, when the individual was absorbed in the corporation, guild, commune, or order to which he belonged, it survived to some extent in the political organization of feudalism; and by the intellectual changes brought about during the Renaissance and Reformation, and by the gradual working out of Teutonic institutions into modern governments, the ideas of individual liberty and individual rights were transmitted to the modern world. In England, as early as the thirteenth century, ideas of civil liberty were crystallized in Magna Carta, which served as the model for numerous later bills of rights.
The political principles tacitly underlying the democratic institutions of the Teutons were especially important. While the influence of Roman law and government, and the military necessity of maintaining their power over a large conquered population, soon compelled the Teutonic leaders to centralize their government and establish a more autocratic authority, many traces of their earlier political methods survived and contributed to the democratic and individualistic spirit of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The early Teutons possessed popular assemblies of two types. A national assembly, composed of all the freemen of the tribe, chose the chieftains, decided for or against important proposals submitted to it, and occasionally acted as a judicial tribunal to hear important disputes.
This assembly, however, early disappeared, as the Teutonic peoples were centralized into monarchies. In addition there were local representative assemblies, in the hundreds or the cantons, which decided local issues and served especially as judicial bodies.
These survived on the continent until the end of the Middle Ages, when the revival of Roman law introduced a new judicial system. In England they furnished the model for the House of Commons, the local representative principle being transferred to the national legislature.
Thus was introduced a device of government that combined central control with local self-government and made possible popular control ever large areas. With the possible exception of federal government, which is similar in principle, no more valuable contribution to the machinery of government has been made in historic times.
In the early Teutonic tribes the freemen possessed the right of electing their king. There was, however, a general tendency toward the principle of heredity, especially when the kings gained power after the conquest. In Germany the elective principle was kept alive, the emperor, for centuries, being chosen by a body of electors.
The fact that the medieval German emperor seldom possessed real governing power made the elective principle of little importance. In England, while the monarchy became hereditary, the idea that the king ultimately owed his authority to the people survived, and the right to depose an unsatisfactory king was actually exercised.
Finally, in the Revolution of 1688 and in the accession of the House of Hanover, the principle of the right of the people’s representatives to bestow the throne was clearly established, and a nominal monarchy became virtually a republic. The Teutonic principle of elective monarchy thus contributed to the modern theory of constitutional government.
The invaders idea of law also differed from that of Rome. The Teutonic peoples thought of legal rights as belonging to individuals, not because they were members of the state, but because they were persons. Their law was a part of themselves, which they took with them wherever they went, and which they could not change or abandon. In contrast to the territorial basis of Roman law, which applied to all persons in the empire, Teutonic law had a personal basis, each man having the right to be tried according to his own law.
Accordingly, after the conquest the Roman population continued to be governed by the legal system of Rome, with which the Teutonic rulers and judges were compelled to make themselves familiar. In this process Teutonic legal principles were influenced by Roman ideas, and within a few generations, written codes of Teutonic laws,’5 prepared in the Latin language by Roman scholars, appeared.
In the Roman empire, the law had become crystallized into an elaborate, and scientific code, which was supposed to make provision for all Possible cases, but which made further growth difficult. Teutonic law, while of they crude and unscientific, was declared by the public assemblies, acting a, courts.
These bodies, in declaring tribal customs to have the force of lay and in applying the popular sense of justice to new cases established precedents and built up, by a natural process, a constantly expanding body of unwritten or common law. This system of jurisprudence wag practically destroyed on the continent of Europe by the adoption of Roman law toward the close of the Middle Ages.
Influenced by Roman legal theory, the control of the people over law ceased, and law-making power was centered in the royal sovereign. In England, however, while influenced somewhat by Roman legal principles, the common law continued to develop, the legal system remained flexible, and the courts maintained their independence of the legislative and executive branches of government, From England, the common law system was transferred to the United States and to the self-governing colonies of the British Empire.
The idea of personal allegiance, emphasized in the Teutonic comitatus, in which a band of young warriors attached themselves to a leader, were maintained by him, and followed him to war, also contributed important elements to the feudal system in the Middle Ages.
While the Teutonic peoples gradually adopted, in the main, the ideas of the peoples they conquered, in a vague way recognized the continuance of the eternal empire after they had overthrown it, and finally accepted the theory of the permanence of the Holy Roman Empire, their peculiar contributions to political thought were not entirely lost. They survived, especially in England, and contributed much to the later rise of distinctively modern ideas.