Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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HOUSE OF COMMONS, the supreme governing body in the British empire; otherwise, and nominally, the "lower house" in the British parliament. The house of commons was founded in 1265 by Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, after his glorious victory over the royal forces at Lewes. Down to this time, the king had summoned only the great barons to attend his council, and it had become customary to continue summoning every baron who had once been summoned, so that there grew up a "right of summons," which became hereditary. Persons who possessed a right of summons to the king's great council were regarded as peers or lords; and thus the English peerage was established. Thus down to 1265, the only parliament was the king's great council, which was simply the house of lords. But in 1265, when the barons had conducted, against Henry III., a struggle somewhat similar to that which the parliament conducted four centuries afterward against Charles I., the barons, in order henceforth to guard more effectually against the encroachments of the crown, sought the aid of the commons, that is, of the wealthy landed gentry and powerful citizens who did not belong to the peerage. In accordance with this policy, Simon de Montfort, one of the most glorious names in the history of English liberty, summoned to the parliament of 1265 two landholders from each county, known as "knights of the shire," two citizens from each city, and two burgesses from each borough. These were to be representative members, elected by their constituents in town or county; and this was the beginning of a national representative government in England. And from the fortunate union of rural and urban representatives, including even the children and younger brothers of peers, in a single legislative body, the house of commons became at once the representation of the entire nation, and not of any separate class or order in the nation. The work of creating the house of commons, which was begun by Simon de Montfort, was fully completed thirty years later by Edward I. From 1295 onward it was a thoroughly recognized principle that every parliament should consist of a house of commons in addition to a house of lords, and that the members of the lower house should be elected by the people. As it had always been recognized, with more or less clearness, that the fundamental element in an Englishman's liberty was that no one could take away his money without his consent, the right of the house of commons to vote all taxes became almost immediately established; and this point having been once gained, the gradual acquirement of supreme legislative power by the lower house was only a question of time. Three times during the reigns of Edward II. and Edward III. it was enacted that a parliament should be held at least once a year, and that in some convenient place, for the redress of grievances and the maintenance of the statutes. The necessity of repeating this enactment shows that the unwillingness to assemble a parliament, which had become so flagrant in Stuart times, had begun to show itself already on the part of the Plantagenets. The old English sovereigns always preferred to reign without the assistance of parliament, so far as possible; but sooner or later the need of money compelled them to summon it. Until the middle of the seventeenth century there was no legal limit to the duration of a parliament, except that it was always regarded as dissolved by the death of the sovereign. But after Charles I. had suffered twelve years (1629-40) to pass by without assembling a parliament, one of the first measures passed by the long parliament in 1641 was the triennial act, whereby every parliament was to expire at the end of three years from the first day of its session (or, if then sitting, at its first subsequent adjournment), and a new parliament must be elected within three years from the expiration of the preceding one. This act, however, was disregarded by the very parliament which passed it, which did not terminate its existence until 1661. In 1694 the duration of parliament was again limited to three years; in 1715 the period was extended to seven years by the septennial act, and this arrangement has continued in force ever since. Since the revolution of 1688 no year has elapsed without at least one session of parliament. This annual session has been secured partly through the necessity of passing the annual mutiny act, whereby alone it is possible to maintain the legal existence of the army. It is partly due also to the great increase in public expenditure, making an annual appropriation of money an absolute necessity. Within the limits imposed by these necessities and by the septennial act, the crown can summon, prorogue and dissolve parliament at its pleasure; but the practical employment of this, as of nearly all the prerogatives of the sovereign, has now passed entirely into the hands of the prime minister.


—At the accession of Henry VIII. the whole number of constituencies in England and Wales was 147; but in this new reign several new seats were added for Wales; and considerable additions to the borough franchises were made in all the following reigns, down to the restoration. A large proportion of these newly added boroughs were "rotten boroughs," and the purpose of granting them the franchise was to increase surreptitiously the royal influence of the house of commons. From Edward IV. to Charles I. the new additions consisted almost exclusively of borough members. In the later Stuart reigns the house of commons contained about 500 members. The union with Scotland in 1707 added 45 new members; and the union with Ireland in 1801 added 100 more. Since that time the number of the house has remained at about 650, with a slight tendency to increase through the extension of the suffrage, and the formation of new constituencies, chiefly among the universities. The number of members at present is 658. These 658 members are returned as follows by the three divisions of the United Kingdom:

England and Wales:
52 counties and Isle of Wight... 187
200 cities and boroughs... 295
3 universities... 5

33 counties... 32
22 cities and burgh districts... 26
4 universities... 2

32 counties... 61
33 cities and boroughs... 39
1 university... 2

Seats vacant by disfranchisement...   6
Total...   658


In a parliamentary paper of 1876 it was stated that if the distribution of representation were determined solely by population, the number of members would be 476 for England, 70 for Scotland, and 112 for Ireland; if determined solely by contributions to revenue, the numbers would be 514 for England, 79 for Scotland, and 65 for Ireland; if determined by these two circumstances taken together, the result would be the mean between these two sets of numbers, that is, 494 for England, 75 for Scotland, 89 for Ireland; in all, 658. So that at present, while the proportional representation of England is strictly equitable, it appears that Scotland has a much smaller and Ireland a much larger share than that to which these countries are equitably entitled.


—By the reform bill of 1832 the county constituencies in England were increased from 52 to 82, by dividing several counties into electoral districts, and the number of county members was raised from 94 to 159. No change was made in the county representation of Scotland and Ireland. In England, 56 boroughs, containing a population of less than 2,000 each, and returning altogether 111 members, were disfranchised; 30 other boroughs, with a population of less than 4,000 each, were deprived each of one of its representatives. On the other hand, 22 new boroughs, each containing 25,000 inhabitants and upward, were endowed with the full franchise of returning two members; and 21 new boroughs, each with a population of more than 12,000 and less than 25,000, were empowered to return one member. This wholesale disfranchisement and enfranchisement marks the extent to which—partly through the corrupt creation of rotten boroughs already noticed, partly through the natural growth of great industrial centres and relative decline of other places—the house of commons had, previous to 1832, fallen short of truly and accurately representing the country. This change also increased the independence of the house of commons, as a very large proportion of the disfranchised boroughs were virtually at the disposal of members of the house of lords. In Scotland the reform bill increased the town members from 15 to 23, and this number has since been increased to 26.


—After 1832 no change worthy of mention was made in the constituency of the house of commons until the reform bills of 1867 and 1868, which considerably extended the electoral franchise. By these acts the borough franchise was given in England and Scotland to every adult male, after a residence of one year within the borough, either as a householder paying the poor-rate, or as a lodger in lodgings that would let unfurnished for at least £10 per year. In Ireland, instead of the household franchise, votes were given to persons occupying houses or land within the borough of not less than £4 net annual value. In England and Scotland the county franchise was extended to all persons possessing land within the county of the clear yearly value of £5 or more, and to all tenants paying poor-rates, and occupying land within the county of the ratable value of at least £12 in England and £14 in Scotland. No change was made in the county franchise of Ireland, as it stood already at about these same figures. At the same time several changes were made in England in the distribution of members among the boroughs, and the number of members was fixed at 493 for England and Wales, 60 for Scotland, and 105 for Ireland.


—The only qualification necessary for a member of parliament is to have attained the age of twenty-one. Naturalized foreigners were formerly ineligible, but were made eligible in 1870 by an act which abolished all distinctions whatever, political and civil, between British-born subjects and naturalized aliens. But all clergymen of the established church are ineligible; and all government contractors, as well as all sheriffs and other "returning" officers, are disqualified, not only from sitting in parliament, but even from voting at elections. Irish peers may be elected to the house of commons, as was the case, for example, with the late Lord Palmerston; but English and Scotch peers are ineligible. No member of the house of commons is allowed to accept any office of profit from the crown. It was enacted in 1872 that all parliamentary elections must be conducted by ballot, except in the universities; one of the chief reasons adduced for this measure was the existence of bribery and intimidation. By an act of 1812 bankruptcy was made a disqualification for sitting in the house of commons. Members of the house are, during the sessions, exempt from liability to arrest or imprisonment, but civil actions may be brought against them at any time.


—The reform bill of 1867, among its other provisions, completed the formal independence of the house of commons by decrecing that the parliament "in being at any future demise of the crown shall not be determined by such demise, but shall continue as long as it would otherwise have continued unless dissolved by the crown." If at the time of the sovereign's death, parliament be adjourned or prorogued, it must immediately be assembled; and in case the death of the sovereign should occur after the dissolution of a parliament, but before the day appointed for the meeting of a new one, the old parliament must be assembled again, but in such case its duration is limited to six months.


—For information regarding the supreme legislative authority of the house of commons, and its relations to the house of lords and to the crown, see the article GREAT BRITAIN, section "Constitution." Practically the house of commons is omnipotent throughout the whole extent of the British empire; its authority extends to all matters whatever, ecclesiastical or temporal, civil or military.


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