Rise of Civil Freedom and Social Improvement

Civil freedom, as we have seen, dawned first in the great commercial cities of Italy, whence it spread to Germany, Flanders, and Britain. This important change in society may be traced to the institution of free communities of traders, or guilds of merchants; and such confederacies were a necessary consequence of the usurpation and tyranny of the nobles and feudal possessors of the soil. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the usurpations of the nobility became intolerable; they had reduced the great body of the people to a state of actual servitude. Nor was such oppression the portion of those alone who dwelt in the country, and were employed in cultivating the estates of their masters. Cities and villages found it necessary to hold of some great lord, on whom they might depend for protection, and became no less subject to his arbitrary jurisdiction. The inhabitants were deprived of those rights which, in social life, are deemed most natural and inalienable. They could not dispose of the effects which their own industry had acquired, either by a later will, or by any deed executed during their lives. Neither could they marry, nor carry on lawsuits, without the consent of their lord. But as soon as the cities of Italy began to turn their attention towards commerce, and to conceive some idea of the advantages which they might derive from it, they became impatient to shake off the yoke of their insolent lords, and to establish among themselves such a free and equal government as would render property and industry secure. The Italian cities were the first to emancipate themselves, and their example was followed in other great seats of population, the king of the country in general countenancing the establishment of free communities, in order to gain support against the encroachments of the overgrown power of the barons. The first community of this description formed in Scotland is understood to have been that of Berwick-upon-Tweed, which received its charter from William the Lion. Towns, upon acquiring the right of community, became so many little republics, governed by known and equal laws. The inhabitants being trained to arms, and being surrounded by walls, they soon began to hold the neighboring barons in contempt, and to withstand aggressions on their property and privileges. Another great good, of fully more importance, was produced. These free communities were speedily admitted, by their representatives, into, the great council of the nation, whether distinguished by the name of a Parliament, a Diet, the Cortes, or the States-General. This is justly esteemed the greatest event in the history of mankind in modern times. Representatives from the English boroughs were first admitted into the great national council by the barons who took up arms against Henry III in the year 1265; being summoned to add to the greater popularity of their party, and to strengthen the barrier against the encroachments of regal power. Read ers may draw their own conclusions from an event which ultimately had the effect of revolutionising the framework of society, and of rearing that great body of the people commonly styled 'the middle class.'

The enfranchising of burghal communities led to the manumission of slaves. Hitherto the tillers of the ground, all the inferior classes of the country, were the bondsmen of the barons. The monarchs of France, in order to reduce the power of the nobles, set the example, by ordering (1315 - 1318) all serfs to be set at liberty on just and reasonable conditions. The edicts were carried into immediate execution within the royal domain. The example of their sovereigns, together with the expectation of considerable sums which they might raise by this expedient, led many of the nobles to set their dependents at liberty; and servitude was thus gradually abolished in almost every province of the kingdom. This beneficial practice similarly spread over the rest of Europe; and in England, as the spirit of liberty gained ground, the very name and idea of personal servitude, without any formal interposition of the legislature to prohibit it, was totally banished.