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The U.S. Ambassador in Berlin Praises the Constitution of the North German Confederation (November 1, 1867)

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As with us legislation is carried on by a parliament of two houses. The council, as the German senate is called, is composed of forty three members. Each state names at least one councilor, otherwise the distribution of numbers follows the precedent of the late German diet, so that Prussia nominates seventeen. The appointment is made respectively by the executive of the several states. But it is to be remembered that in each state there is a constitutional government, so that the election of councilors is raised above the caprice of the princes of the several states.

The house of representatives, or Imperial Diet as it is called, is composed of 297 members, distributed on the ratio of one to every hundred thousand inhabitants, with a further representative to each state for a fraction of fifty thousand or more, and chosen by universal suffrage with the ballot. No advantage is conceded to rank or privilege or wealth, and accordingly the diet just elected including bankers, large manufacturers, and members of the higher nobility, mean of letters, mechanics and laboring men, is a very good representation of the whole country in its present condition. The members of the representative diet are elected for three years; they can be assembled or prorogued by the President of the United States, but they cannot be dissolved without the concurrence of the other branch of the legislature.

Each house, as with us has the right to propose laws, to amend them, to reject them, or to concur in enacting them; but in practice most of the bills are prepared and proposed by the smaller body, representing the several states.

The president of the German United States is the king of Prussia. His powers are very much like those of our president only they are for life and are hereditary; and a greater intensity of executive authority is conceded from the necessity of guarding against restless and susceptible neighbors. He is commander in chief of all land and naval forces; he declares war and restores peace; he directs international relations; but treaties that affect legislation have no validity until they receive the approval of both branches of the legislature. He appoints to offices and has also the power of removal; only the terms in which the power of removal is granted imply that it is not be exercised capriciously.

Some regulations differ entirely from ours. No members of the diet may as such receive any pay or compensation whatever; but office holders are eligible as representatives, and their pay may continue during the session. There is nothing in the North German constitution which forbids the two houses from sitting separately; but the members of the council may attend and do attend the meetings of the diet; and though they cannot vote with the diet, they take part in its deliberations. This has led to an opinion, that the council is not a separate branch of the legislature, but the opinion is unfounded; the council has its own meetings, its own deliberations, and its own time and place of voting, and has legislative attributes as surely as the American Senate.

The session of the parliament which has just come to an end has been marked by industry, public spirit and forbearance. Without wasting time in self gratulations [sic] or rhetoric or party feuds, the members have, in about thirty sittings, ratified treaties of the greatest moment and considered and enacted twelve most important measures of immediate necessity. And it is worth observing that the legislation of this parliament for all North Germany is, on the whole, more liberal than that of the separate legislatures.

But while much has been done, much more remains to be done before the German United States will complete their organization.

I remain, sir,

Yours sincerely

Geo. Bancroft.

Source: George Bancroft, U.S. Ambassador to the North German Confederation, Berlin, to William Seward, U.S. Secretary of State, Washington, D.C., November 1, 1867. Original handwritten report in the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA, Record Group 59, M44, Dispatches from United States Ministers to the German States and Germany, reel 14 (1867-68), unfoliated.

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