Selections From



The English Government of the Eighteenth Century

Struggles Between the Many and the Few

Constitutional government is not necessarily democratic.  Usually it is a compromise in which monarchical and aristocratic features are retained…

Every step toward democracy has been stubbornly opposed by the few, who have yielded to the popular demand, from time to time, only what necessity required. The constitution of the present day is the outcome of this long-continued and incessant struggle. It reflects in its form and character the existing distribution of political power within the state.

If we go back far enough we find government nearly everywhere in the hands of a King and privileged class. In its earlier stages the constitutional struggle was between monarchy and aristocracy, the King seeking to make his authority supreme and the nobility seeking to limit and circumscribe it. Accordingly, government oscillated between monarchy and aristocracy, a strong and ambitious King getting the reins of government largely in his own hands, while the aristocracy encroached upon the power and prerogatives of a weak and incompetent one. [Pp. 3-4]

The Great Charter

Under William the Conqueror and his immediate successors the government of England was practically an absolute monarchy. Only the highest class was consulted in the Great Council and the advice of these the King was not obliged to follow. Later, as a result of the memorable controversy between King John and his feudal barons, the Great Council regained the power which it had lost…The Great Charter extorted from the King on this occasion, though frequently referred to as the foundation of English liberty, was in reality a matter of but little importance to the common people…

The important provisions of the Great Charter relate exclusively to the rights of the church, the nobility and the freemen. The serfs, while not included within the benefit of its provisions, were an overwhelming majority of the English people.
The Great Charter was, it is true, an important step in the direction of constitutional government, but it contained no element of democracy…The classes represented in the Great Council became a constitutional check on the power of the King, inasmuch as he could not levy taxes without their consent. [Pp. 4-5]

Development of a Bicameral parliament

In the course of time the Great Council split up into two separate bodies, the House of Lords, composed of the greater nobility and the higher dignitaries of the church, and the House of Commons, representing all other classes who enjoyed political rights…the right of assenting to all measures of taxation came in time to be recognized as belonging to the two houses of Parliament. But this was a right not easily established. It was claimed and fought for a long time before it finally became a firmly established principle of the English Constitution… In time Parliament extended its powers and succeeded in making its assent necessary to all governmental acts… [P. 6]

Limited and irresponsible government

The essential fact everywhere to be observed in the development of constitutional government, is the rise of political power classes which compete with the King and with each other for the control of the state. The monopoly of political power enjoyed by the King was broken down in England when the nobility compelled the signing of Magna Charta. This change in the English Constitution involved the placing of a check upon the King in the interest of the aristocracy. Later, with the development of the House of Commons as a separate institution, the power of the King was still further limited, this time in the interest of what we may call the commercial and industrial aristocracy…

The system of checks and balances must not be confused with democracy; it is opposed to and can not be reconciled with the theory of popular government. While involving a denial of the right of the King or of any class to a free hand in political matters, it at the same time denies the right of the masses to direct the policy of the state. This would be the case even if one branch of the government had the broadest possible basis. [Pp. 8-9]

Class influence as seen in statute and common law

The House of Commons was not, however, a popular body in the eighteenth century. In theory, of course, as a part of Parliament it represented the whole English people. But this was a mere political fiction, since by reason of the narrowly limited suffrage, a large part of the English people had no voice in parliamentary elections. Probably not one-fifth of the adult male population was entitled to vote for members of Parliament. As the right to vote was an incident of land ownership, the House of Commons was largely representative of the same interests that controlled the House of Lords…

The laws enacted during this period were distinctly undemocratic. While the interests of the land-holding aristocracy were carefully guarded, the well-being of the laboring population received scant consideration. The poor laws, the enclosure acts and the corn laws, which had in view the prosperity of the landlord, and the laws against combination, which sought to advance the interests of the capitalist at the expense of the laborer, show the spirit of the English government…But it is not in statute alone that this tendency is seen. English common law shows the same bias in favor of the classes which then controlled the state. There is no mistaking the influences which left their impress upon the development of English law at the hands of the courts. The effect of wealth and political privilege is seen here as well as in statutory enactment. [Pp. 10-11]

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