Изображения страниц

chamber; there were limits to his authority and power, - limits which he would discover by trying whether eager cheers received his mandate, or only hollow murmurs and a thinking silence.

This polity is a good one for its era and its place, but there is a fatal defect in it: the reverential associations upon which the government is built are transmitted according to one law, and the capacity needful to work the government is transmitted according to another law. The popular homage clings to the line of god-descended kings; it is transmitted by inheritance. But very soon that line comes to a child or an idiot, or one by some defect or other incapable; then we find everywhere the truth of the old saying that liberty thrives under weak princes; then the listening assembly begins not only to murmur, but to speak; then the grave council begins not so much to suggest as to inculcate, not so much to advise as to enjoin.

Mr. Grote has told at length how out of these appendages of the original kingdom the free states of Greece derived their origin, and how they gradually grew,- the oligarchical states expanding the council, and the democratical expanding the assembly. The history has as many varieties in detail as there were Greek cities, but the essence is the same everywhere: the political characteristic of the early Greeks, and of the early Romans too, is that out of the tentacula of a monarchy they developed the organs of a republic.

English history has been in substance the same, though its form is different and its growth far slower and longer: the scale was larger and the elements more various. A Greek city soon got rid of its kings, for the political sacredness of the monarch would not bear the daily inspection and constant criticism of an eager and talking multitude; everywhere in Greece the slave population — the most ignorant, and therefore the most unsusceptible of intellectual influences

was struck out of the account: but England began as a kingdom of considerable size, inhabited by distinct races, none of them fit for prosaic criticism and all subject to the superstition of royalty. In early England, too, royalty was much more than a superstition: a very strong executive was needed to keep

a down a divided, an armed, and an impatient country; and therefore the problem of political development was delicate. A formed free government in a homogeneous nation may have a strong executive; but during the transition state, while the republic is in course of development and the monarchy in course of decay, the executive is of necessity weak, – the polity is divided, and its action feeble and failing. The different orders of English people have progressed, too, at different rates. The change in the state of the higher classes since the Middle Ages is enormous, and it is all improvement; but the lower have varied little, and many argue that in some important respects they have got worse, even if in others they have got better. The development of the English Constitution was of necessity slow, because a quick one would have destroyed the executive and killed the state, and because the most numerous classes, who changed very little, were not prepared for any catastrophic change in our institutions.

I cannot presume to speak of the time before the Conquest, and the exact nature even of all AngloNorman institutions is perhaps dubious; at least, in nearly all cases there have been many controversies. Political zeal, whether Whig or Tory, has wanted to find a model in the past; and the whole state of society being confused, the precedents altering with the caprice of men and the chance of events, ingenious advocacy has had a happy field: but all that I need speak of is quite plain. There was a great “council” of the realm, to which the king summoned the most considerable persons in England, the persons he most wanted to advise him, and the persons whose tempers he was most anxious to ascertain. Exactly who came

[ocr errors]

to it at first is obscure and unimportant. I need not distinguish between the magnum concilium in Parliament” and the magnum concilium out of Parliament”: gradually the principal assemblies summoned by the English sovereign took the precise and definite form of Lords and Commons, as in their outside we now see them; but their real nature was very different. The Parliament of to-day is a ruling body: the mediæval Parliament was, if I may so say, an expressive body,- its function was to tell the executive, the king, what the nation wished he should do; to

extent to guide him by new wisdom, and to a very great extent to guide him by new facts. These facts were their own feelings, which were the feelings of the people because they were part and parcel of the people; from thence the king learned, or had the means to learn, what the nation would endure and what it would not endure, what he might do and what he might not do. If he much mistook this, there was a rebellion.

There are, as is well known, three great periods in the English Constitution. The first of these is the ante-Tudor period. The English Parliament then seemed to be gaining extraordinary strength and power: the title to the crown was uncertain, some monarchs were imbecile, many ambitious men wanted to “take the people into partnership.” Certain precedents of that time were cited with grave authority centuries after, when the time of freedom had really arrived. But the causes of this rapid growth soon produced an even more sudden decline: confusion fostered it and confusion destroyed it. The structure of society then was feudal; the towns were only an adjunct and a make-weight. The principal popular force was an aristocratic force, acting with the cooperation of the gentry and yeomanry, and resting on the loyal fealty of sworn retainers; the head of this force, on whom its efficiency depended, was the high nobility : but the high nobility killed itself out.

[ocr errors]

The great barons who adhered to the “Red Rose" or the “White Rose," or who fluctuated from one to the other, became poorer, fewer, and less potent every year; when the great struggle ended at Bosworth, a large part of the greatest combatants were gone. The restless, aspiring, rich barons, who made the civil war, were broken by it: Henry VII. attained a kingdom in which there was a Parliament to advise, but scarcely a Parliament to control.

The consultative government of the ante-Tudor period had little resemblance to some of the modern governments which French philosophers call by that name. The French Empire, I believe, calls itself so; but its assemblies are symmetrical shams. They are elected by a universal suffrage, by the ballot, and in districts once marked out with an eye to equality and still retaining a look of equality. But our English Parliaments were unsymmetrical realities,- they were elected anyhow: the sheriff had a considerable license in sending writs to boroughs, - that is, he could in part pick its [Parliament's] constituencies; and in each borough there was a rush and scramble for the franchise, so that the strongest local party got it whether few or many. But in England at that time there was a great and distinct desire to know the opinion of the nation, because there was a real and close necessity: the nation was wanted to do something, -- to assist the sovereign in some war, to pay some old debt, to contribute its force and aid in the critical conjuncture of the time. It would not have suited the ante-Tudor kings to have had a fictitious assembly: they would have lost their sole feeler, their only instrument for discovering national opinion. Nor could they have manufactured such an assembly if they wished: the instrument in that behalf is the centralized executive, and there was then no préfet by whom the opinion of a rural locality could be made to order and adjusted to suit the wishes of the capital. Looking at the mode of election, a theorist would say that these Parliaments were but “chance" collections of influential Englishmen. There would be many corrections and limitations to add to that statement if it were wanted to make it accurate, but the statement itself hits exactly the principal excellence of those Parliaments: if not chance collections of Englishmen, they were undesigned collections, – no administrations made them or could make them. They were bona fide counselors, whose opinion might be wise or unwise, but was anyhow of paramount importance because their co-operation was wanted for what was in hand.

Legislation as a positive power was very secondary in those old Parliaments; I believe no statute at all, as far as we know, was passed in the reign of Richard I., and all the ante-Tudor acts together would look meager enough to a modern parliamentary agent who had to live by them: but the negative action of Parliament upon the law was essential to its whole idea and ran through every part of its use. That the king could not change what was then the almost sacred datum of the common law without seeing whether his nation liked it or not, was an essential part of the “tentative” system. The king had to feel his way in this exceptional, singular act, as those ages deemed original legislation, -as well as in lesser acts. The legislation was his at last; he enacted after consulting his Lords and Commons; his was the sacred mouth which gave holy firmness to the enactment: but he only dared alter the rule regulating the common life of his people after consulting those people; he would not have been obeyed if he had not, by a rude age which did not fear civil war as we fear it now. Many most important enactments of that period (and the fact is most characteristic) are declaratory acts: they do not profess to enjoin by inherent authority what the law shall in future be, but to state and mark what the law is; they are declarations of immemorial custom, not precepts of

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »