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INTRO D U CTO R.Y.
THERE are few studies more interesting to the historical inquirer than to watch the slow but gradual evolutions of civilization which result in political freedom. How a people emerges from its native barbarism, first fencing itself round with those safeguards which society demands for its protection; then, when physical security has been established, turning its thoughts to the advancement of education, and with such advancement releasing itself from those disabilities which hamper its political progress—inquiries of this nature are ever fraught with some useful purpose. They prove, if nothing else, that if “freedom broadens slowly down from precedent to precedent,” the constitutional liberties of a nation are never fixed on such a firm basis as when they have been acquired by the tardy yet cautious triumph of toleration and compromise over the restrictions of prejudice and bigotry. The constitutional history of our own country—the model of all constitutional governments in Europe— is the most complete testimony we possess to the truth of this remark. Slow and calculating as has been our development from barbarism into feudalism, from feudalism into the exclusiveness of prerogative, and from prerogative into the enlightened toleration of parliamentary government, there is yet no nation where the liberty of the subject is more jealously protected, WOL. I.
the laws of the land more justly administered, and the evils arising from a civil or military despotism more crushingly controlled, than among the English people. Yet the acquisition of these privileges was no sudden or fleeting triumph snatched from an oppressive oligarchy or from the tyranny of prerogative, but was the slow and gradual outcome of the opposition to all high-handed proceedings, which century after century had been raised by the representatives of the people. The liberties of England are the proud rewards gained by the House of Commons. True it is that in the earlier stages of our history it was to the barons that we are indebted for Magna Charta and its successive confirmations, and that it was to the active co-operation of the peers we owe the clauses of the Petition of Right and the independent position occupied by the judicial bench; yet it is the House of Commons, battling reign after reign against tyranny, oppression, and political slavery, which has been the chief conqueror in the struggle, and it is to its efforts that the rights and privileges which we now enjoy must be attributed. From the days when the haughty Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, first gave a decisive direction to the early development of parliamentary government in England —by issuing, in the winter of 1264, the memorable writs summoning the first 1
complete Parliament which had ever met in England—to the present time, is a long interval, replete with conflicts between might and right, prejudice and compromise, bigotry and toleration, restriction and emancipation. A glance at the past is no unfitting preparation for the study of political biography, and may perhaps help us the better to appreciate and understand the lives of those Leaders of the Senate whose acts we are about to record. During the earlier years of its existence, after having made its first appearance as a legislative assembly, the House of Commons played a very secondary part in conducting the affairs of the country. Its members occupied the lower end of the chamber—for in those days Parliament was held in one chamber—in which the mitred abbots and armed barons sat, and had no voice in the conduct of public business; they voted as they were bidden; they consented to the imposition of taxes, since they dared not resist; and unlike the present day, when every vacant seat in the House is eagerly contested by a crowd of competitors, every member essayed all his arts to avoid election and escape from his parliamentary duties. In the next reign—that of our first Edward—the faithful Commons had so far asserted themselves that a statute was passed enacting that for the future “no tax should be levied without the joint assent of the Lords and Commons.” To the enrolment of this statute must be attributed the power which the Lower House subsequently attained. A few years afterwards the Commons separated from the Lords, and held their deliberations in a special chamber allotted to them. In the reign of Edward III. the power of the House of Commons had so far developed that through its influence three great constitutional principles were laid down. The first was, that it was “illegal for the sovereign to raise money without the consent of Parliament;” the second, that it was “necessary for the alteration of any law to have the concurrence of the Lords and Commons;” and the third
was, that it fell within the right of the House of Commons “to inquire into public abuses and to impeach the ministers of the crown.” Not without reason, therefore, is the reign of Edward III. considered one of the most important in the annals of our history. Constitutional principles acquired still further developments when Henry IV. sat on the throne, for the celebrated maxims were then laid down, that “the Commons possess an exclusive right of originating all money bills,” and that the sovereign should not “take cognizance of any matter pending in Parliament.” During the period of the Wars of the Roses, and in the days when the Tudor dynasty wielded the sceptre, the progress of constitutionalism was arrested. The Commons shifted in their policy according as either Yorkist or Lancastrian became dominant, and were content, for the acquisition of their own selfish interests, to degrade themselves into the ready and pliant instruments of the will of the crown. Under Henry VIII. and his daughters this servility on the part of the representatives of the people increased; Parliament was awed by the prerogative; and hence by degrees the constitution suffered from the inroads of arbitrary power, from the establishment of the odious court of Star Chamber, the decisions of which were in defiance of the jurisprudence of the country, and from the illegal taxes which, under the mask of loans and benevolences, were freely raised. Another cause tended to strengthen this despotism. The result of the Reformation had been to increase the power of the crown by creating the sovereign head of the church as well as of the state. Henry VIII. and his immediate successors held all but unlimited sway over the destinies of their subjects, and exacted from the nation at large a degree of submission which had not been paid to any monarch since the days of the Conquest. Nearly all the old nobility, who in times of peril would have presented a barrier against the encroachments of arbitrary power, had been swept away during the civil wars. The constitution of the Upper House had been changed, owing to the elimination of the great majority of the ecclesiastics and heads of religious houses who had possessed seats within its walls before the rupture with Rome. Such dignitaries of the church as held their seats, and consented to take the oath of supremacy, were for the most part servile instruments in the hands of the sovereign, who secured their services and their ready acquiescence by means of lavish grants of church and abbey lands. Men thus bribed were powerless to defend the constitution and the liberties of the nation. After the accession of the first Stuart to the English throne a reaction, however, set in. The spirit of liberty grew with the increasing wealth and intelligence of the people, and then the Civil War ensued. Until 1641 the conduct of the Parliament must meet with the approval of all those who are in favour of constitutional government; there can be little doubt that Charles I., by his evasions of the law and his resolve to rule without parliamentary control, had entertained a fixed purpose of destroying the constitution, and of establishing in its stead an absolute monarchy. Such an aim was most culpable, yet the demands of the Houses after 1641 cannot be justified, and in the war which ensued the Parliament were clearly the aggressors. The result of that struggle is familiar to us all. Charles Stuart was made the scapegoat, on whose head were laid, and in whose person were expiated, the sins of his predecessors for more than a hundred years past. With respect to the faction which persecuted him even unto death, but one opinion can now be formed. It was no friend to public liberty, for never under the most arbitrary monarch were the people of England subject to a more rigid tyranny; nor did it ever compose the majority of the nation. But it is ever so in revolutions. A few violent men take the lead, their noise and activity appear to multiply their numbers, and then the great body of the people, either indolent or pusillanimous, are bound in triumph to the chariot wheels of a paltry faction.
On the recall of Charles II. from exile, the republican policy introduced by Cromwell was swept away, and the old constitution, which had given place to a democracy controlled by a military despotism, was restored in its integrity. This restoration led to the development of that select committee of the privy council, which is called the Cabinet, as an executive power; to the substitution of indirect for direct taxation; to the final extinction of the feudal system; and to the enrolment in the statute book of that great Act which, taken in connection with trial by jury, offers the most complete security that human laws can afford against the arbitrary infliction of punishment by the sovereign — the Habeas Corpus Act. The darkest hour is the hour before dawn, and the reign of James II. is only memorable for the tyranny and bigoted rule he attempted to introduce, and which faded away like night before the morning at the accession of William of Orange. The famous revolution of 1688 effected not so much a change as a restoration; it developed the system of parliamentary government, until it gradually transferred the centre and force of the state from the crown itself to the legislative assembly, and especially to the House of Commons; it substituted a ministry constructed on some basis of political union, for ministers often at variance with each other and independent of parliamentary control; then, as parliamentary government is essentially government by party, the introduction of the advisers of the crown into the legislative assembly gradually compelled the rival factions of Whig and Tory, and, in later times, of Liberal and Conservative, to have recourse to a recognized system of party tactics. Yet, great as has been the change which these developments have effected, the revolution of 1688 but restored the English constitution to its first principles; it did not enlarge the liberty of the subject, but simply gave it a better security; it neither widened nor contracted the foundation, but simply repaired the fabric. Before 1688 the theory of the English constitution was that the authority of the crown was limited, and that its power was controlled by Parliament. This theory, as we have seen, especially during the Tudor and Stuart periods of our history, was not recognized —if the sovereign was weak, he played into the hands of his council; but if strong, the council became the pliant instrument of his will. Parliament had little voice in the matter, the people were calmly ignored, ministers were dependent only on the exercise of the prerogative, and thus the question of government often became limited to a struggle between the crown and the advisers. The revolution of 1688 brought the theory and practice into harmony, and since that date the crown has never attempted to govern without Parliament. The consequence of this development has resulted in the lowering of the prerogative and the exaltation of the power and influence of Parliament ; and Parliament, since the passing of the two Reform Bills, signifies the House of Commons. Thus practically we are a self-governing country. The ministers to whom the executive functions of the crown are intrusted must sit in Parliament, and according to the confidence that Parliament reposes in them, so long will they be permitted to exercise power; but since the redistribution of seats and the lowering of the franchise, consequent upon the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867, the ultimate verdict upon every exercise of political power must be sought for in the judgment of the House of Commons, and the House of Commons signifies the people.
One of the most important results of the introduction of the advisers of the crown
into Parliament has been the gradual growth of the power and position of the prime minister. Though the post is unknown to the law and the constitution—for legally no one privy councillor has, as such, any superiority over another—the prime minister is at the present day the head of the government, the especial choice of his sovereign, and the one Öfficial upon whose maintenance of power depends the existence of the ministry. If he should vacate office, the cabinet is dissolved. It was not always so. Before 1688 the prime minister was simply the favourite of the king, upon whose goodwill his rise and fall solely depended. Nor was it until the accession to power of Sir Robert Walpole that the office of prime minister first began to assume importance. It was Sir Robert Walpole who was the first of English statesmen who dominated over a cabinet and was recognized as its leader. It was Sir Robert Walpole who was the first to be regarded as the one medium of communication between the sovereign and his ministers. It was Sir Robert Walpole who was the first political leader who maintained his power by the manipulation of majorities in the House of Commons. And the resignation of Sir Robert Walpole is the first instance in our political history of the resignation of a prime minister in deference to an adverse vote of the House of Commons. With the career of Sir Robert Walpole begins the history of the faults and the advantages, the patriotism and the selfishness, of government by Parliament. He therefore fittingly takes his place as the
first of our “Leaders of the Senate.”