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I do not apologize for dwelling at length upon these points, for the subject is one of transcendent importance. The practical choice of first-rate nations is between the presidential government and the parliamentary; no state can be first-rate which has not a government by discussion, and those are the only two existing species of that government. It is between them that a nation which has to choose its government must choose; and nothing, therefore, can be more important than to compare the two, and to decide upon the testimony of experience, and by facts, which of them is the better.
JUNE 29, 1872.
“On all great subjects,” says Mr. Mill, "much remains to be said," and of none is this more true than of the English Constitution. The literature which has accumulated upon it is huge; but an observer who looks at the living reality will wonder at the contrast to the paper description. He will see in the life much which is not in the books; and he will not find in the rough practice many refinements of the literary theory. It was natural - perhaps inevitable - that such an
undergrowth of irrelevant ideas should gather round the British Constitution. Language is the tradition of nations : each generation describes what it sees, but it uses words transmitted from the past. When a great entity like the British Constitution has continued in connected outward sameness, but hidden inner change, for many ages, every generation inherits a series of inapt words, of maxims once true but of which the truth is ceasing or has ceased. As a man's family go on muttering in his maturity incorrect phrases derived from a just observation of his early youth, so, in the full activity of a historical constitution, its subjects repeat phrases true in the time of their fathers, and inculcated by those fathers, but now true no longer. Or if I may say so, an ancient and ever-altering constitution is like an old man who still wears with attached fondness clothes in the fashion of his youth: what you see of him is the same; what you do not see is wholly altered.
There are two descriptions of the English Constitution which have exercised immense influence, but which are erroneous.
First, it is laid down as a principle of the English polity, that in it the legislative, the executive, and the judicial powers are quite divided; that each is intrusted to a separate person or set of persons; that no one of these can at all interfere with the work of the other. There has been much eloquence expended in explaining how the rough genius of the English people, even in the Middle Ages when it was especially rude, carried into life and practice that elaborate division of functions which philosophers had suggested on paper, but which they had hardly hoped to see except on paper.
Secondly, it is insisted that the peculiar excellence of the British Constitution lies in a balanced union of three powers. It is said that the monarchical element, the aristocratic element, and the democratic element have each a share in the supreme sovereignty, and that the assent of all three is necessary to the action of that sovereignty. Kings, Lords, and Commons, by this theory, are alleged to be not only the outward form, but the inner moving essence, the vitality of the Constitution. A great theory, called the theory of “checks and balances,” pervades an immense part of political literature, and much of it is collected from or supported by English experience. Monarchy, it is said, has some faults, some bad tendencies, aristocracy others, democracy again others; but England has shown that a government can be constructed in which these evil tendencies exactly check, balance, and destroy one another, – in which a good whole is constructed not simply in spite of, but by means of, the counteracting defects of the constituent parts. Accordingly, it is believed that the principal characteristics of the English Constitution are inapplicable in countries where the materials for a monarchy or an aristocracy do not exist. That Constitution is conceived to be the best imaginable use of the political elements which the great majority of states in modern Europe inherited from the mediæval period. It is believed that out of these materials nothing better can be made than the English Constitution ; but it is also believed that the essential parts of the English Constitution cannot be made except from these materials. Now, these elements are the accidents of a period and a region; they belong only to one or two centuries in human history, and to a few countries. The United States could not have become monarchical, even if the Constitutional Convention had decreed it, even if the component States had ratified it. The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people. These semi-filial feelings in government are inherited just as [are] the true filial feelings in common life. You might as well adopt a father as make a monarchy; the special sentiment belonging to the one is as incapable of voluntary creation as the peculiar affection belonging to the other. If the practical part of the English Constitution could only be made out of a curious accumulation of mediæval materials, its interest would be half historical, and its imitability very confined.
No one can approach to an understanding of the English institutions, or of others which, being the growth of many centuries, exercise a wide sway over mixed populations, unless he divide them into two classes. In such constitutions there are two parts (not indeed separable with microscopic accuracy, for the genius of great affairs abhors nicety of division): first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population, — the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts, - those by which it in fact works and rules. There are two great objects which every constitution must attain to be successful, which every old and celebrated one must have wonderfully achieved: every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority; it must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind, and then employ that homage in the work of government.
There are indeed practical men who reject the dignified parts of government. They say, We want only to attain results, to do business: a constitution is a collection of political means for political ends; and if you admit that any part of a constitution does no business, or that a simpler machine would do equally well what it does, you admit that this part of the constitution, however dignified or awful it may be, is nevertheless in truth useless. And other reasoners, who distrust this bare philosophy, have propounded subtle arguments to prove that these dignified parts of old governments are cardinal components of the essential apparatus, great pivots of substantial utility; and so they shave) manufactured fallacies which the plainer school have well exposed. But both schools are in error. The dignified parts of government are those which bring it force, which attract its motive power; the efficient parts only employ that power. The comely parts of a government have need, for they are those upon which its vital strength depends. They may not do anything definite that a simpler polity would not do better; but they are the preliminaries, the needful prerequisites of all work. They raise the army, though they do not win the battle.
Doubtless, if all subjects of the same government only thought of what was useful to them, and if they all thought the same thing useful, and all thought that same thing could be attained in the same way, the efficient members of a constitution would suffice, and no impressive adjuncts would be needed. But the world in which we live is organized far otherwise.
The most strange fact, though the most certain, in nature is the unequal development of the human
If we look back to the early ages of mankind,