Copyright
William Shepherd.

Systematic education: or Elementary instruction in the various departments of literature and science; with practical rules for studying each branch of useful knowledge (Volume 1) online

. (page 33 of 44)
Online LibraryWilliam ShepherdSystematic education: or Elementary instruction in the various departments of literature and science; with practical rules for studying each branch of useful knowledge (Volume 1) → online text (page 33 of 44)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


right, and claimed a general interest in the ordinance of political
regulations, were practically upon a very different footing from
those whose department was limited to the offer of pecuniary
grants, the deputies for boroughs found it expedient to assem-
ble in a separate chamber, which was early distinguished by
the name of the House of Commons. For some little time
after this the Knights of the Shire continued to sit with the
Barons ; but soon finding themselves liable to perpetual morti-
fication from a proud aristocracy, who looked upon them as
greatly their inferiors, they were led to unite themselves with
the Citizens and Burgesses, by whom they were regarded with
deferential respect. At the same time an union took place in
the upper house, between the nobles and the clergy, who had
hitherto voted as distinct and separate orders.

Here then we have a distinct outline of the Constitution of
Parliament, as it subsists at this day. And even in many
subordinate parts, the resemblance of ancient and modern
parliamentary principles is sufficiently striking. At this early
period it was the exclusive privilege of the commons to
propose taxes, and to impeach the great officers of state who
might be guilty of malversation, while it was the exclusive
department of the Barons to sit in judgment upon notable
state offenders, and in all cases to exercise jurisdiction in the
hsX resort, as a court of appeal. It was abo at thb time



KNIGHTS OF THE SHIRE. 597

sealed, that each house should lake cognizance of all questions
touching the rights and immunities belonging to their several
orders.

The principles upon' which the election of representatives
of the several boroughs was conducted, varied according to
circumstances. In those corporate towns, where opulence
was generally diffused, members were returned to parliament
by the suffrages of the people at large. In boroughs, in
which the bulk of the people were in a poor and servile con-
dition, the right of election was vested in a few individuals.

The knights of the shire, being at first the representatives of
the smaller barons, were of course elected by them ; but in
process of time a most salutary change was effected in the
mode of their appointment, by the enfranchisement of the
arriere vassals, or sjich landholders as held their estates not
immediately from the crown, but from a subject-superior.

As the great barons were the most able, so they were
seldom unwilling, to restrain the authority of the sovereign.
Hence a jealousy naturally arose between the superior nobles
and the l^og, which, though productive of mischief in its im-
mediate, was useful in its remote effects. For with a view of
gaining, as it were, the alliance of a rising power, the princes of
the House of Tudor gave franchises to a great number of addi-
tional boroughs, which circumstance directly tended to the con-
firmation and the increase of popular rights. Nor did the peo-
ple make an ungrateful return for the privileges which were then
bestowed upon them. Inspired with a natural dislike of their
feudal oppressors, they were ever ready to support the regal
dignity. Hence were derived great accessions to the power
of the crown, the operation of which was signally manifested
in the reign of Henry VII. At this period the families of the
nobility were exhausted and reduced by the wars, which had
so long been carried on between the houses of York and Lan-
caster; and as luxury increased in proportion to the increase of
trade and commerce, the heads of those families were tempt-
ed to supply their wants by the alienation of their estates, the



398 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

process of whichwas purposely facilitated by legislative pro-
visions made during the reign. But though the power of the
crown increased, as that of the aristocracy declined, it must
be remarked, that, as Henry VII. did not exercise his autho-
rity in an arbitrary and capricious manner, he never exacted
loans from his subjects ; and never but twice had recourse to
tlie expedient of benevolences. On all other occasions he
regularly imposed taxes by the authority of parliament. Be-
fore his time, however, a power had been occasionally exer-
cised by popular monarchs, of dispensing with laws; and
the practice of announcing legal regulations by royal pro-
clamations; had been sometimes perverted to the purpose
of vesting the legislative authority in the crown alone; but
these irregularities were comparatively rare ; and when fit op-
portunities occurred, they were condemned by the declarations
of the parliament.



^






CHAP. XXVII.



BRITISH CONSTITUTION,

Continued.



Changes in the Constitution under Henry VIII. Elizabeth James I,
Charles I. Cromwell Charles II. James II. William and Mary-
Present organization of the British Constitution Regal power.



In the reign of Henry VIII., the authority of the croWh
acquired an almost overwhelming influence. On the annul-
ling of the supremacy of the Pope, that monarch was declared
"bead of the English church, and was vested with the extensive
power which accrued from the disposal of ecclesiastical bene-
fices ; in addition to which, his revenues were for a time ma-
terially increased by the produce of the forfeited estates be-
longing to the monasteries, which his greediness for gain, rather
than his religious zeal, prompted him to suppress. It has been
remarked, that impetuous as was the temper of Henry, and
extravagant as were his claims, he never attempted to raise
money upon his subjects without consent of parliament. This
remark, however, only points to the fact, that he was not gra-
tuitously tyrannical. In his reign, parliaments were humble
and complying. It was only requisite that the king's pleasure
should be made known to them, and his wishes were iostantlj



400 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

gratified. Nay, to such a condition of degradation was the
great council of the nation sunk, at this disgraceful period, that
in the thirty-first year of this king's reign, it was enacted, " that
the king, M'ith the advice of the council, might issue procla-
mations, under such penalties as he should think necessary,
and that these should be observed, as though they were made
by act of parliament." As to the limitation, that " these
should not be prejudicial to any person's iiiheritance, offices,
liberties, goods, chattels, or life," it was manifestly intended
merely as a salvo for the honour of those who passed this in-
famous statute ; and was purposely calculated to be nugatory
in point of practical effect.

It was a fortunate circumstance for the inhabitants of these
islands, that Henry did not live to consolidate his tyranny,
and that the mmority of his son, Edward VI., afforded an
opportunity of abrogating all proceedings which tended to
countenance the late stretches of prerogative. In the reign of
Mary, the general attention was occupied by the struggle which
took place between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant
religion ; and she happily did not reign long enough to extir-
pate either ProtestaiiUsm or liberty, both of which she regard-
ed with an evil eye.

The glorious reign of Elizabeth was, in the main, con-
ducted upon popular maxims. Relying, indeed, upon her
people in the hour of danger, and finding them eager to sup-
port her rights, she had full confidence in their duty and loy-
alty, and never scrupled to refer the general affairs of the
kingdom to the consideration of parliament. With the legis-
lative power of that assembly, in the business of taxes, she
never interfered. Of her prerogative, however, she was
jealous; and confounding the privilege of the sovereign, to
refuse his assent to propositions which had been matured by
parliamentary discussion, with the right to discuss matters
which might be disagreeable to the ruling powers, she occa-
sionally interposed to control the deliberation of both houses,
and even went so far as to imprison members, who were per-



UNDER THE STUARTS.

tinacious in agitating questions, the consideration of wfiicli
she had prohibited. These were, gloublless, unjustifiable
stretches of power ; and whilst they militated against the rights
of the people, evinced tiie necessity of those rights being more
strictly defined than they had hitherto been.

But James 1., on whose head were united the crowns of
England and of Scotland, seems to have imbibed the highest
prerogative notions entertained by the most tyrannical of his
predecessors ; and to have been insensible of that march of
mind which was silently, but decisively preparing the way for
resistance to arbitrary power. He did not take into his ac-
count the settlement of religion, which left his English sub-
jects more leisure and tranquillity to regulate their civil con-
cerns. He forgot that the very legitimacy of his title to the
crown, precluded all fear of that greatest subject of dread to
all good citizens, a domestic war. He was not aware that
the exercise of theological controversy, had sharpened the
acumen of disputants upon politics. He was unconscious of
the rapid growth of reason and intellect in his dominions ; and
if he were apprized that the example of the United Provinces,
had dift'used throughout his dominions a sense of civil rights,
he trusted to his sagacity to find out the means of quelling the
rising spirit of freedom among his subjects. Hence his inter-
course with parliament was unsatisfactory and unprofitable ;
and he tried every expedient to conduct the business ot the
kingdom, independently of the interference of that assembly,
which was, on every occasion of its bemg summoned, found
to increase in popularity and power.

Here it may be expedient to observe, that though it had
been provided by a statute of Edward HI. that a parliament
should be holden at least once in the course of every year,
this statute had become in a manner obsolete ; and for many
antecedent reigns, the summoning of the great council of the
nation depended on the will of the sovereign.

At his accession to the throne, Charles T. found the reve-
nues of the crown dilapidated, and his finances incumbered

VOL. I. 2d



402 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

with a large debt, which was daily increased by the expenses
of the war of the Palatinate. Poverty, however, did not
teach him humility. When after a few experiments, he had
found parliaments more industrious in stating and enlarging
upon the public grievances, thau in ministering to his wants,
he determined to reign without them. Misled by favourites
and flatterers, and drawn into error by dishonest judges, he,
on his sole authority, adopted the most arbitrary and the most
violent methods of raising money. Soon finding huuself in-
volved in the difficulties consequent upon such maxims of
government, he was at length reduced to the necessity of ap-
plying for aid to that very body, whose scrutiny he had so-.
much reason to dread. In the course of a little time, findings
himself stripped, one by one, of his dearest prerogatives, he
had recourse to the last appeal of sovereigns. He engaged in
a war against his subjects, which ended in his captivity, his trial,
and liis death. In this dreadful struggle, the Constitution was
torn to pieces. The ecclesiastical establishment was super-
seded the House of Lords was abolished all the power of
the state was transferred to a Committee, which, branching
out into subordinate bodies, diffused throughout the whole
kingdom the rancorous activity of democratic sway.

This state of things, however, could not, in its nature, be
of long duration. An overstrained democracy always terminates
in despotism. In the regular progress of events, the adminis-
tration of public affairs fell into tlie hands of a military chief,
who ruled the more despotically, because, as his title was
new, his powers were undefined. Though it cannot be denied
that Cromwell was possessed of many great qualities, neither
can it be denied, that his sway was tyrannical. Parliaments he
treated with contempt. When they manifested any symptoms
of resistance to his will, he dismissed them in part, or in the
whole, according to his pleasure.

Such conduct could not fail to diffuse discontent tlirough-
out the whole country ; and though, after the death of the
Protector, his son Richard seized the reins of government,



UNDER THE STUARTS. 403

they instantly dropped from h'A feeble hand. The general
voice called for the restoration of Monarchy ; and the second
Charles returned from his long exile, and was received by his
repentant people with the most ardent enthusiasm. On this
occasion, as men are ever prone to run into extremes, the
spirit of freedom was nearly annihilated ; and the public func-
tionaries seemed prepared, in all formality, to vest the crown
with arbitrary power. By the interposition of a wise and
virtuous few, however, the forms of the Constitution were
revived the hierarchy resumed its dignity the House of
Lords was restored ; and the Commons were restricted to
their ordinary functions. Thus modified, the Convention
which had agreed to the restoration of the monarchy, assumed
the name of a Parliament. But, as in the opinion of the
court, this parliament stood in need of purification, it had
hardly effected the new settlement before it was dissolved ;
and the House of Commons, on the ensuing election, was re-
placed by a new one, fully imbued with the obsequious doc-
trines which constituted the political fashion of the day.

In the reign of Charles I. an act had been passed, which
provided, that no longer an interval tlian three years should
take place between one meeting of parliament and another.
In the year 1664, this salutary statute was repealed, and the
summoning of parliaments was left entirely to the discretion of
the king. At this time there was no limit to the duration of
the functions of the Lower House. When, therefore, Charles
n. had once assembled a body of senators, who seemed to
be sufficiently obsequious to his views, he was not in haste to
change them, and he allowed his celebrated Long Parliament
to sit about eighteen years. In that space of time a great
alteration having taken place in the public feeling, and the
Commons, influenced by jealousy of the designs of the crown
against the protestant religion, manifesting strong symptoms
of resistance against the measures of the court, he took a
decisive stejj, and dissolved the parliament in the year 1681.
From that period to the time of his death, he governed the

2 D 2



404 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

kingdom in a great measure according to the dictates of his
arbitrary will.

*iA jealousy, which subsequent events proved to be well
founded, of the insidious and despotic views of the Duke of
York, the presumptive heir to the throne, had induced the
friends of freedom to endeavour, by the Bill of Exclusion,
to deprive him of the means of eflfecting his purpose. Many
of the first characters in the kingdom fell victims to the re-
sentment kindled by this abortive attempt in the bosoms of the
royal brothers, and for a while they were branded after their
death, as factious calumniators. But the conduct of the
Duke when he assumed the throne, under tlie name of James
II., fully justified the plans, and vindicated the memories of
the martyrs of popular rights. Immediately on his accession
he proceeded to levy money, by the authority of a royal pro-
clamation ; and though he soon afterwards summoned a par-
liament, he took care to intimate to the Commons, that if
they did not fully enter into his views, he could easily find
means of dispensing with their services ; to which may be
added, that by the exercise of tlie dispensing power, he at-
tempted to abrogate the fundamental provisions of the consti-
tution. It is a circumstance truly fortunate for these realms,
that James II. was in principle not only a despot, but also a
bigot Had he bounded his views to an attack on the civil
rights of his subjects, it is a matter of considerable doubt,
whether sufficient spirit could have been roused effectually to
thwart his designs. But his attachment to the Roman Catho-
lic religion betrayed him into measures which diffused a ge-
neral alarm. At this crisis the chiefs of the English Church,
forgetting their favourite doctrines of passive obedience and
non-resistance, plentifully sowed the seeds of discontent ; and
the leaders of the Whigs applied to the Prince of Orange,
whom they invited to repair to this country as the redresser of
wrongs, the champion of civil liberty, and tlie guardian of the
Protestant faith.
The pusillanimous James having, on the approach of the



BILL O*' lOOflTS. 405

Prince of Orange to London, fled to France, the contention,
which on this emergenc)' was summoned to provide for the
security of the country, affected to consider this flight as an
abdication of the crown. A vacancy of the throne being thus
declared, they immediately proceeded to fill it by devolving
the succession upon the Prince and Princess of Orange. By
this measure they deviated as little from the lineal course of in-
heritance, as was consistent with the general safety ; and gave
as little countenance as possible to the principle of elective
monarchy. The convention being now converted into a par-
liament, proceeded under the direction of the most enlightened
minds in the kingdom, to ascertain the bounds of the preroga-
tive, and to secure the liberty of the subject, by the justly cele-
brated " Bill of Rights." In this bill it was expressly de-
clared " that the pretended power of suspending laws, or the
execution of laws by regal authority without consent of parlia-
ment, is illegal;" every mode of levying money upon the sub-
ject, by mere virtue of the royal prerogative, was pointedly
condemned. It was also laid down as a fundamental principle,
" that the freedom of speech, and debates or proceedings in
parliament, ought not to be impeached or questioned in any
court, or place out of parliament;" and with a well founded
jealousy of military interference in civil affairs, it was declared,
*' that the raising or keeping a standing army within the king-
dom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of parliament,
is against law ;" -and even in time of war, the maintenance of a
military force, was afterwards rendered entirely dependent up-
on the authority of parliament. Thege are the principal pro-
visions of the " Bill of Rights" which though it may well be
denominated the palladium of British liberties, prescribes no
new limitations of the prerogative ; but merely asserts those
great principles of constitutional law which are to be collected
from the practice of the best times.

By one of its clauses a claim is made on behalf of the peo-
ple of England, to the holding of " frequent parliaments."
But this provision not being thought of itself sufficient to guard



406 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

the interests of the subject, in apprehension of the exercise of un-
due influence on the part of the crown over the House of Com-
mons, it was enacted in the 6th of William and Mary, that the
duration of parliaments should be limited to three years. By
the statute 1. Geo. I. St. 2. c. 38. this term was prolonged
to seven.

This brief historical review of the rise, progress and
variations of the British Constitution, may with propriety be
closed by a still more brief account of its present organization.
''Governments which are simple in their forms, are either
democratic, aristocratical, or despotic. Each of these systems
of political rule has its advantages and its defects. Democra-
cies may be honest in their views, and public-spirited in their
resolves ; but they are liable to be rash in their decisions, and
indecisive in the execution of their measures ; to which may
be added, that they are liable to all the horrors of factious turbu-
lence. An aristocratical body may be prudent in its deliberations ;
but it is liable to corruption, whilst the ambitious intrigues (^
rival chieftains difl'use mutual dissatisfaction, and often give
rise to the fury of civil war. And though an arbitrary mo-
narch may be skilful in design, and prompt in action, that
thirst for power, which seems to be innate in the human mind,
will in all probability incite him to trample upon the dearest
interests of his subjects. But the British Constitution, being
a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, seems
happily calculated to comprehend the good, and to reject the
evil, which occur in these simple forms of civil polity. " For,"
to quote the sentiments of Mr. Justice Blackstone, " as with
us the executive power of the laws is lodged in a single
person, they have all the advantages of strength and dispatch
that are to be found in the most absolute monarchy ; and as
the legislature of the kingdom is entrusted to three distinct
powers, entirely independent of each other ; first, the king ;
secondly, the lords spiritual and temjioral, which is an aristo-
cratical assembly of persons selected for their piety, their
birth, their wisdom, their valour, or their property ; and thirdly.



REGAL POWER. 40?

the House of Commons freely chosen by the people, from
among themselves, which makes it a kind of democracy ; as
this aggregate body, actuated by different springs, and atten-
tive to different interests, composes the British Parliament,
and has the supreme disposal of every thing, there can no
inconvenience be attempted by either of these three branches,
but will be withstood by one of the other two ; each branch
being armed with a negative power sufficient to repel any
innovation which it shall think inexpedient or dangerous."

In analysing the component parts of the British Constitution,
the regal power claims our first attention.

The crown of the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and
Ireland b hereditary in the manner of landed estates, as to the
male line. In one material circumstance, however, it differs,
from common inheritances, inasmuch as it is not subject to
subdivision, but in default of males, it descends entire to the
eldest female heir and her issue.

It is nevertheless to be remarked, that though the British
crown is generally hereditary, yet, when the welfare of the
state requires it, common sense and precedent conspire to
prove, that with respect to it, hereditary right may be defeated.

In case of necessity, or of manifest expediency, the lineal
heir may be excluded, and the crown may be vested in any one
else. And this may be done either by the Lords and Commons
alone, as in case of a vacancy of the throne ; or by the con-
currence of King, Lords, and Commons, in case of the throne
being full. Thus, when limitation of the descent became
advisable in consequence of the misrule of James II. the two
houses of Parliament vested the crown in William III. and
Queen Mary ; and on failure of issue in the line in which the
crown was then limited, the succession was vested by the 1 2fh
and 1 3th of William III. in the heirs of Sophia of Hanover,
upon condition that such heirs be protestants of the Church
of England, and are married to none but protestants.

The rightful inheritor of the crown of the United Kingdoms,
is by the conditions of his inheritance, bound to the discharge



408 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

of certaiu duties, as well as vested v^ith certain powers and
prerogatives. And it may be observed in geueral, that he
is solemuly obliged " to govern his people according to law."
Nothing b left to his arbitrary will. Nor is tliis, in the case of
British kings, a mere deduction of rea.son. It 'm the subject
of an express provision of the statute upon which is ultimately
founded the right of the present reigning family to the throne
of these realms, viz. the 12th and 13th of William III.. By
this statute it is expressly declared, ** that the laws of Englaud
are the birtliright of the people thereof ; and all the kings and
queens who shall ascend the throne of this realm, ought to
administer the same according to the said laws ; and all their
officers and ministers ought to serve them respectively accord-
ing to the same. According to the tenour of this statute,
by tlic oath administered to our sovereigns at their coronation,
they solemnly engage to govern according to law ; to execute
judgment in mercy ; and to maintain the established religion,
viz. Episcopacy according to the system of the English Church
in England ; Ireland, and Berwick upon Tweed ; and Presby-
terianism hi Scotland.

To enable the sovereign of these realms to discharge his
duties, he is vested by the constitution with ample and exten-



Online LibraryWilliam ShepherdSystematic education: or Elementary instruction in the various departments of literature and science; with practical rules for studying each branch of useful knowledge (Volume 1) → online text (page 33 of 44)