Commentary on British Government from 1803

Posted By on May 22, 2013

Posts comparing the modern US Congress and the Parliament of the 1700’s continue to be the most frequently visited posts on this site. What drives this interest? What is compelling search after search attracting people to this site? I am honored and intrigued to discover that when I enter the search “congress and parliament of the 1700” in Google and Bing the top two returns are two of the articles I’ve written.

Note: The articles available online here are; “Congress & Parliament of the 1700’s”, “More on Congress and Parliament of the 1700’s” and “The English Government of the 1700’s”.

There is a plethora of information available on the British government, and its make up during the Revolutionary and early Constitutional periods. Yet, sadly, still the American public in general remains woefully ignorant of the subject. This ignorance is then translated into a lack of a more complete understanding of the causes of the American War for Independence (1775-1783). This lack of understanding translates into the often repeated maxim of American philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, our lack of understanding and knowledge of our past is causing us to repeat the past by allowing our government to become the very incarnation of that which was rejected in the Revolution.

I have found a source who quotes a book written by James Mackintosh, a British citizen, in 1791. The following excerpt is used by permission and can be found online at Tucker’s Commentary on Blackstone, Note B. And followed up with some of Tucker’s commentary:

“It is perhaps susceptible of proof,” says this nervous writer, “that these governments of balance and control have never existed but in the visions of theorists. The fairest example will be the constitution of England. If it can be proved that the two members of the legislature who pretend to control each other are ruled by the same class of men, the control must be granted to be imaginary. That opposition of interest which is supposed to preclude all conspiracy against the people can no longer exist. That this is the state of England, the most superficial observation must evince. The great proprietors, tided and untitled, possess the whole force of both houses of parliament, that is not immediately dependent on the crown. The peers have a great influence in the house of commons. All political parties are formed by a confederacy of the members of both houses. The court party by the influence of the crown, acting equally in both, supported by a part of the independent aristocracy: The opposition by the remainder of the aristocracy, whether commoners, or lords. Here is every symptom of collusion: no vestige of control. The only case where it could arise, is where the interest of the peerage, is distinct from that of the other great proprietors.”

“Who can, without indignation,” adds the same writer, “hear the house of commons of England called a popular representative? A more insolent and preposterous abuse of language is not to be found in the vocabulary of tyrants. The criterion that distinguishes laws from dictates, freedom from servitude, rightful government from usurpation, the law being an expression of the general will is wanting. This is the grievance which the admirers of the revolution in 1688, desire to remedy according to its principles. This is that perennial source of corruption, which has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. If the general interest is not the object of the government, it is, it must be, because the general will does not govern. We are boldly challenged to produce our proofs: our complaints are asserted to be chimerical, and the excellence of our government is inferred from its beneficial effects. Most unfortunately for us, most unfortunately for our country, these proofs are too ready, and too numerous. We find them in that monumental debt, the bequest of wasteful, and profligate wars, which wrings from the peasant something of his hard-earned pittance; which already has punished the industry of the useful and upright manufacturer, by robbing him of the asylum of his house, and the judgment of his peers: to which the madness of political quixotism [sic] adds a million for every farthing that the pomp of ministerial empyricism [sic] pays; and which menaces our children with convulsions and calamities, of which no age has seen the parallel. We find them in the bloody roll of persecuting statutes that are still suffered to stain our code; a list so execrable, that were there no monument to be preserved of what England was in the eighteenth century, but her statute-book, she might be deemed still plunged in the deepest gloom of superstitious barbarism. We find them in the ignominious exclusion of great bodies of our fellow citizens from political trusts, by tests which reward falsehood, and punish probity; which profane the rites of the religion they pretend to guard, and usurp the dominion of the God, they profess to revere. We find them in the growing corruptions of those who administer the government, in the venality of a house of commons which has become only a cumbrous and expensive chamber for registering ministerial edicts …. in the increase of a nobility arrived to a degradation, by the profusion and prostitution of honours [sic], which the most zealous partizans [sic] of democracy would have spared them. We find them, above all, in the rapid progress which has been made to silence the great organ of public opinion, the Press, which is the true control on ministers and parliaments, who might else, with impunity, trample on the impotent formalities, that form the pretended bulwark of our freedom …. The mutual control, the well-poised balance of the several members of our legislature, are the visions of theoretical, or the pretexts of practical politicians. It is a government not of check, but of conspiracy …. a conspiracy which can only be repressed by the energy of popular opinion.”

If this be a true picture of the government of Great Britain (and whether it is or not, I shall leave it to others to enquire [sic] and determine,) the epoch can not [sic] be far distant, which Judge Blackstone hints at in the introduction to his commentaries. If ever it should happen” says that enlightened author “that the independence of any one of the three branches of the legislature should be lost, or that it should become subservient to the views of either of the other two, there would soon be an end of the constitution.” In which case, according to Sir Matthew Hale, the subjects of that kingdom are left without all manner of remedy.

Such, then, being the history of the British constitution, the most perfect model of these mixt governments, (as agreed on all hands by their admirers, and advocates,) that the world ever saw, we may apply to them generally, the observations of an excellent politician of the last century. “If all the parts of the state do not with their utmost power promote the public good; if the prince has other aims than the safety and welfare of his country; if such as represent the people do not preserve their courage and integrity; if the nation’s treasure is wasted; if ministers are allowed to undermine the constitution with impunity; if judges are suffered to pervert justice, and wrest the law; then is a mixed government the greatest tyranny in the world: it is tyranny established by law; and the people are bound in fetters of their own making. A tyranny that governs by the sword, has few friends but men of the sword; but a legal tyranny (where the people are only called to confirm iniquity with their own voices) has on its side the rich, the timid, the lazy, those that know law, and get by it, ambitious churchmen, and all whose livelihood depends upon the quiet posture of affairs: and the persons here described compose the influencing part of most nations; so that such a tyranny is hardly to be shaken off.”

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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