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 LORDS. The house of lords is the lineal descendant of the witenagemot, or "meeting of wise men," of the times preceding the Norman conquest. Its prototype was the county assembly of early Saxon times. The difference between a tungemot or "town meeting" and a witenagemot or "meeting of wise men," answered exactly to the difference between a primary and a representative assembly as now understood. The little town meetings were, as a rule, attended by all freemen of the township, but in the case of the shire assemblies distance and difficulty of travel made such universal attendance impracticable, and so each township sent a delegation of "wise or discreet men" to represent it. Hence the county assembly came to be known as a meeting of the wise men of the shire. And as the shires gradually became consolidated into the little kingdoms formerly known as the "heptarchy," and at last into the single great kingdom of England, a great assembly of wise men grew up after the model of the little county assemblies, and was known as the witenagemot of the kingdom. It was attended by the heads of the principal families of the kingdom, including such local sovereigns as the great earls. When it was desirable to discuss some question of public policy, the king summoned by writ his most powerful subjects to talk it over with him. Such was the origin of the English parliament; the house of commons being a later addition, as I have explained under that head. In early times the summons of the great nobles or landholders to attend parliament seems to have depended in great measure on the royal will. But by the time of Edward I. it had become customary to summon the same persons again and again until through prescription there grew up the "right of summons," which, like most rights and franchises in that feudal age, forthwith became hereditary. The modern peerage of England consists, therefore, simply of those persons who have inherited a right of summons to attend parliament; and in this respect it differs essentially from the nobility of any other country in Europe, or indeed, in the world. For as this right of summons is a right to a legislative and judicial office which can be filled by only one person at a time, it is only the head of a noble family who is a peer, and this dignity can be inherited only by that one of the children who becomes in turn the head of the family. The rest of the noble family are all commoners. This, as elsewhere pointed out, has prevented anything like a severance between the interests of the higher and of the lower classes in England, and has had a great deal to do with the peaceful and healthy political development by which that country has been above all others distinguished.


—As at present organized, the house of lords consists of peers who occupy their seats: 1. By hereditary prescription; 2. By direct creation of the sovereign; 3. By virtue of office, as the English bishops; 4. By election for life, as the Irish peers; 5. By election for duration of parliament, as the Scottish peers. As regards the second class, it may be said that the crown has an unrestricted power of creating English peers. This power, which, like most of the royal prerogatives, has come in modern times to be wielded by the prime minister, is in the last resort an effectual safeguard against a deadlock between the two houses of parliament. If the house of lords is obdurate in its antagonism to a strong majority in the house of commons, the prime minister has it in his power to create enough new peers, from his own political party, to reverse the majority in the house of lords. In point of fact it is seldom necessary to resort to this somewhat violent remedy, since the mere knowledge that such a power exists is ordinarily sufficient to prevent the lords from too obstinately withstanding a policy which is clearly favored by public opinion. In the reign of George I. an attempt was made to restrict the royal prerogative of creating peers; but this attempt, which if successful would have gone far toward converting the English peerage into a rigid and obstructive aristocracy, most fortunately failed. In the case of Scottish and Irish peerages, however, the royal prerogative is restricted by statute. The sovereign can not create a new Scottish peerage, except in the case of younger branches of the royal family, though he may revive an extinct or forfeited peerage. A new Irish peerage can be created only when three existing peerages have become extinct; and this rule is to be maintained until the number of Irish peers is reduced to one hundred, after which a new peerage may be created as often as an old one becomes extinct. But these restrictions in the case of the Scottish and Irish peerages do not affect the constitutional character of the house of lords, so long as the prerogative of creating peers of Great Britain is left free.


—The house of lords at present consists of 502 members, of whom there are 6 peers of the blood royal, 2 archbishops, 21 dukes, 19 marquises, 118 earls, 26 viscounts, 24 bishops, 253 barons, 16 Scottish representative peers, and 28 Irish representative peers. Of the hereditary peerages, 3 date from the thirteenth century, 4 from the fourteenth, 7 from the fifteenth, 12 from the sixteenth, 35 from the seventeenth, and 95 from the eighteenth, while 341, or more than two-thirds of the whole number, have been created during the nineteenth century.


—The only British subject who is born a peer is the prince of Wales, the other children of the sovereign being commoners unless raised to the peerage by letters patent like any other commoners. The highest rank in the peerage is that of duke, the title of "prince" being merely a courtesy-title applied indiscriminately to members of the royal family without regard to their rank. The eldest sons of dukes take, by courtesy, their father's second title; the younger sons and the daughters are styled Lord Arthur, Lady Alice, etc. Thus William Cavendish, duke of Devonshire, is also marquis of Hartington; his eldest son, John Cavendish, though a commoner, is called marquis of Hartington by courtesy; his younger sons are called Lord Frederick, Lord Edward, etc. Americans often erroneously omit the Christian name in speaking of such persons, saying simply "Lord Cavendish," but this is a gross blunder. The second rank in the peerage is that of marquis. The eldest sons of marquises take their father's second title, while the younger sons and the daughters are called Lord Arthur, Lady Alice, etc. The third rank is that of earl. The eldest sons of earls take their father's second title; the younger sons are styled the Hon Charles, etc.; the daughters, however, are styled Lady Mary, etc., like the daughters of dukes and marquises. The fourth rank is that of viscount, and the fifth is that of baron. The eldest sons of viscounts and barons have no distinctive title; the sons and daughters are styled indiscriminately the Hon. Charles, the Hon. Mary, etc. The archbishops of Canterbury and York take rank immediately after the royal family and above dukes. Bishops rank between viscounts and barons. An archbishop is addressed as "My Lord Archbishop," or "Your Grace." A duke is addressed as "My Lord Duke," or "Your Grace." A marquis is addressed as "My Lord Marquis." Earls, viscounts, bishops and barons are addressed as "My Lord."


—The lord chancellor is the speaker of the house of lords. He may speak and vote like the other peers, and he has no casting vote. By the custom of the house a tie vote is equivalent to a negative. Since the middle of the sixteenth century peers have been allowed to record, in the journals of the house, their dissent from measures which they may have unsuccessfully opposed; and about a century later it was further provided that they might put on record the grounds of their dissent. Peers formerly possessed the privilege of voting by proxy, but, as this practice was found to diminish the personal attendance of peers in parliament, it was formally discontinued in 1868 by a resolution of the house.


—The crown has the prerogative of creating peerages for life, but it was decided in 1855 that a life-peerage does not confer upon its possessor the right to a seat in the house of lords.


—The house of lords, in its judicial capacity, is the highest court in the kingdom, though it has no original jurisdiction, except in cases of political impeachment. It receives appeals from the common law courts and also from the court of chancery. But as regards courts in which civil law is administered, such as the ecclesiastical and admiralty courts, it was decided in 1678 that an appeal should lie, not to the lords, but to a special court of delegates appointed by the crown. In the trial of cases brought on appeal from lower courts, only those peers take part who have held or are holding at the time judicial offices.


—The house of lords approves or rejects bills sent up from the commons, exercising a veto power that is sometimes very useful, though sometimes obstructive; and it can originate bills, which can not become law, however, without the concurrence of the commons. The house of lords has no control whatever over taxation, but simply accepts the bills as passed in the commons.


—The following table shows the composition of the house of lords at different times, from 1295 to the present day.


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