The English Government of the 1700’s

Posted By on May 16, 2011

Last year I wrote an article, Congress & Parliament of the 1700’s. Since then it has been the most read post here on MyStraightTalk.com. Information regarding the British Parliament and government of the 1700’s has been the leading search on Internet search engines leading inquiries here in that period.

As a result of the knowledge, I determined to learn more about the British government whose actions instigated the events which culminated in the American War of Independence. What were they like? How were they constituted? What set them apart? What motivated them?

Reading more about that despotic and tyrannical government has only deepened my convictions, and furthered my convictions that our government has become the very model of the government we fought so desperately to overcome. Our founding fathers strove to establish a government far removed from the one they had eliminated from the American continent. These mean worked diligently to free the American people from tyranny, and to establish a new form of government far removed from the despots, tyrants, kings and aristocracies of Europe.

It is important to remember an axiom which motivates my research, to get the most accurate information you must obtain it from sources closest to the time period in question. My primary source of information on this subject has been a commentary written by St. George Tucker in 1803. Mr. Tucker was born in 1752 near Port Royal, Bermuda. When he was 19, St. George came to Virginia to study law and was a student of George Wythe, the same man who taught Thomas Jefferson. Eventually, Mr. Tucker became a professor of law at the University of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA and a district judge in the federal court system. He passed away at the age of 75 after a long and distinguished career. (More information on St. George Tucker may be obtained on Colonial Williamsburg’s website at, http://www.history.org/almanack/people/bios/biotuck.cfm.)

Mr. Tucker wrote an in-depth commentary on William Blackstone’s Commentaries in 1803. His comments provide us with an invaluable source of information on the the US Constitution, the British government and the early practice of Law in these united States. Tucker’s Blackstone may be found online at http://www.constitution.org/tb/tb-0000.htm. You can find a detailed explanation of the British government in Tucker’s Note D, Sections 5 & 6. Following I will provide excerpts, and you can make your own conclusions.

The House of Commons

Unequal Representation – Such are the principles laid down by this distinguished writer, from whence one would be led to conclude that the elections for members of the house of commons were regulated in a manner as conformable thereto as possible. That where there was an equality of right, an equality of representation would also be found; and that the right of suffrage would be regulated by some uniform standard, so that the same class of men should not possess privileges in one place, which they are denied in another.

1. By equality of representation, it will be understood, that I mean the right which any given number of citizens possessing equal qualifications in respect to the right of suffrage, have, to an equal share in the councils of the nation by their representatives, as an equal number of their fellow citizens in any other part of the state enjoy.

In England and in Wales there are fifty-two counties, represented by knights, elected by the proprietors of lands; the cities and boroughs are represented by citizens and burgesses, chosen by the mercantile part, or supposed trading part of the nation …. The whole number of English representatives, is 513 and of Scots, 45. The members of boroughs now bear above a quadruple proportion to those for counties: from whence one would, at first, be apt to conclude, that the population or at least the number of electors in the counties were equal; and, that the boroughs were at least four times as populous as the counties, collectively. The former of these suppositions would be perfectly unfounded in truth; the latter perhaps may approach nearer to it. In truth, were the latter supposition well founded, the equality of representation would not be much advanced by it… In London which is supposed to contain near a seventh part of the number of the inhabitants of all England, they are entitled to four members only in parliament. The inconsiderable borough of Melcomb Regis in Dorsetshire sends as many. Manchester and Birmingham, two large populous, flourishing, manufacturing towns have no representative, whilst the depopulated borough of Old Sarum, without a house or an inhabitant, is the vehicle through which two members obtain their seats in parliament; a representation equal to that of the most populous county… Here the principle that the whole body of the people should have a share in the legislature, and every individual entitled to vote, possess an equal voice, is practically enforced…. In England it is a mere illusion.

Unequal Voting – “The right of voting in boroughs is various,” says Blackstone, “depending entirely on the several charters, customs, and constitutions of the respective places, which has occasioned infinite disputes.”

In England the boroughs retain the right of representation, as we have seen, even after they have lost their inhabitants.

Unrealistic Qualifications for Representatives – The qualification of the members is the next object of our comparison. In England a knight of the shire must possess an estate in lands of the value of 600£ sterling, per annum, and a member for a borough of one half that value, except the eldest sons of peers; and of persons qualified to be knights of shires, and members of the two universities.

(200£ was the average income of 15 years of work in 1770. So, to qualify for the House of Commons a members land had to produce quite a hefty annual income!)

In England the interests of the crown, of the nobles, and of the people, are confessedly distinct and often diametrically opposite.

Of negative ones, those which relate to the incapacity of certain descriptions of placemen and pensioners in England, are limited to a very small part of the host of the former who depend upon the crown for support; and in respect to the latter only such pensioners as hold during the pleasure of the crown, are excluded. A list of placemen and pensioners (My note: government retirees) in either the present or last parliament of England was published some years ago…. I do not recollect their exact number, but I can be positive that it exceeded two hundred.

In the course of this parallel, we have seen that every deviation in the constitution of the United States from that of Great Britain has been attended with a decided advantage and superiority on the part of the former. We shall perhaps discover, before we dismiss the comparison between them, that all its defects arise from some degree of approximation to the nature of the British government.

There being no distinction of orders, there can be no contention about rights, in either of these forms of government, so long as the government remains in the full vigour (SP) of its constitution.

In all others (My note: the British government), the existing powers determine the nature of the constitution.

House of Lords

The house of lords is composed either of new made peers, or of such to whom that honor has been transmitted by hereditary right; we may admit, though the fact will hardly justify it, that the new made peers have a chance of being selected for their superior wisdom; nay that this is universally the case; the portion of wisdom thus acquired, even in the creative reign of George the third, could never he sufficient to counterbalance the large majority of hereditary peers, who affect to hold in great contempt the talents and learning of their new created brethren.

A member of the house of lords, may make another lord his proxy, to vote for him in his absence; a privilege which he is supposed to derive from sitting there in his own right; and not as one of the representatives of the nation. He may likewise, by leave of parliament enter his protest against any measure, analogous to which we have seen that the yeas and nays of either house of congress shall be called, if one fifth part of the members present concur therein.

The British house of peers (i.e. Lords) consists of twice that number at the least, and may be encreased (SP), at the will of the prince, to any number…. A British house of peers has the privileges of the order, the interests of the corporation of aristocracy, to advance. Their wisdom, their exertions, are directed to their own personal aggrandizement ….

The King, or Monarch

The third constituent part of the British parliament, is the king, without whose assent no bill can pass into a law.

In England since the revolution, the royal negative, as to the practical and ostensible exercise of it, seems to be a mere fiction of the constitution, the influence of the crown in both houses, having always proved sufficient to prevent the obtrusion of any obnoxious bill upon the throne; as has been proved on more than one occasion.

General Comments

And first, the privileges of the parliament of England, and of it’s members, are indefinite, and depend upon their own construction of them when a new case occurs. In America the privileges of the members of congress are, as we have seen, defined, and I presume limited, by the constitution; and the powers of congress are equally prescribed thereby, whilst those of the British parliament have no constitutional limits whatsoever, “and if by any means a misgovernment should any way fall upon it, the subjects of the kingdom are left without all manner of remedy.”

In England, the convening of the parliament, the continuance of the session, and the existence of the parliament depend on the pleasure of the crown.

I look forward to your comments, please make them online using the Comments feature of MyStraightTalk.com.

Related Article Links:

Congress & Parliament of the 1700’s
The English Government of the 1700’s
More on Congress and Parliament of the 1700’s
Commentary on British Government from 1803

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