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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KING. The primary signification of this word is, a person in whom is vested the higher executive functions in a sovereign state, together with a share, more or less limited, of the sovereign power. The state may consist of a vast assemblage of persons, like the French or the Spanish nation, or the British people in which several nations are included; or it may be small, like the Danes, or like one of the Saxon states in England before the kingdoms were united into one; yet if the chief executive functions are vested in some one person who has also a share in the sovereign power, the idea represented by the word king seems to be complete. It is even used for those chiefs of savage tribes who are a state only in a certain loose sense of the term.


—It is immaterial whether the power of such a person is limited only by his own will, or whether his power be limited by certain immemorial usages and written laws, or in any other way; still such a person is a king. Nor does it signify whether he succeed to the kingly power by descent and inheritance on the death of his predecessor, just as the eldest son of a British peer succeeds to his father's rank and title on the death of the parent, or is elected to fill the office by some council or limited body of persons, or by the suffrages of the whole nation. Thus there was a king of Poland, who was an elected king; there is a king of England, who now succeeds by hereditary right.


—In countries where the kingly office is hereditary, some form has always been observed on the accession of a new king, in which there was a recognition on the part of the people of his title, a claim from them that he should pledge himself to the performance of certain duties, and generally a religious ceremony performed, in which anointing him with oil and placing a crown upon his head were conspicuous acts. By this last act is symbolized his supremacy; and by the anointing a certain sacredness is thrown around his person. These kinds of ceremonies exist in most countries in which the sovereign, or the person sharing in the sovereign power, is known as king; and these ceremonies seem to make a distinction between the succession of an hereditary king to his throne and the succession of an hereditary peer to his rank.


—The distinction between a king and an emperor is not one of power, but it has an historical meaning. Emperor comes from imperator, a title used by the sovereigns of the Roman empire. When that empire became divided, the sovereigns of the west and of the east respectively called themselves emperors. The emperor of Germany was regarded as a kind of successor to the emperors of the west, and the emperor of Russia (who is often called the czar) is, with less pretension to the honor. sometimes spoken of as the successor to the emperor of the east. But we speak of the emperor of China where emperor is clearly nothing more than king, and we use emperor rather than king only out of regard to the vast extent of his dominions. Napoleon usurped the title of emperor; and we now sometimes speak of the British empire, an expression which is free from objection. The word imperium (empire) was used both under the Roman emperors, and under the later republic to express the whole Roman dominion.


—The word king is of pure Teutonic origin, and is found slightly varied in its literal elements in most of the languages which have sprung from the Teutonic. The French, the Italian, the Spanish and the Portuguese continue the use of the Latin word rex, only slightly varying the orthography according to the analogies of each particular language. King, traced to its origin, seems to denote one to whom superior knowledge had given superior power, allied, as it seems to be, to know, con, can; but on the etymology, or, what is the same thing, the remote origin of the word, different opinions have been held, and the question may still be considered undetermined.


—There are other words employed to designate the sovereign, or the person who is invested with the chief power of particular states, in using which we adopt the word which the people of those states use, instead of the word king. Thus, there is the shah of Persia, the grand sultan. and formerly there was the dey of Algiers. In the United States of America certain powers are given by the federal constitution to one person, who is elected to enjoy them for four years, with the title of president. A regent is a person appointed by competent authority to exercise the kingly office during the minority or the mental incapacity of the real king; this definition, at least, is true of a regent of the British empire.


—A personage in whom such extraordinary powers have been vested must of necessity have had very much to do with the progress and welfare of particular nations, and with the progress of human society at large. When held by a person of a tyrannical turn, they might be made use of to repress all that was great and generous in the masses who were governed, and to introduce among them all the miseries of slavery. Possessed by a person of an ambitious spirit, they might introduce unnecessary quarreling among nations to open the way for conquest, so that whole nations might suffer for the gratification of the personal ambition of one. The lover of peace and truth, and human improvement and security, may have found in the possession of kingly power the means of benefiting a people to an extent that might satisfy the most benevolent heart. But the long experience of mankind has proved that for the king himself and for his people it is best that there should be strong checks in the frame of society on the will of kings, in the forms of courts of justice, councils, parliaments, and other bodies or single persons whose concurrence must be obtained before anything is undertaken in which the interests of the community are extensively involved. In constitutional kingdoms, as in England, there are controlling powers, and even in countries in which the executive and legislative power are nominally in some one person absolutely, the acts of that person are virtually controlled by the opinion of the people, a power constantly increasing as the facilities of communication and the knowledge of a people advance.


—Nothing can be more various than the constitutional checks in different states on the kingly power, or as it is more usually called in England, the royal prerogative. Such a subject must be passed over in an article of confined limits such as this must be, else in speaking of the kingly dignity it might have been proper to exhibit how diversely power is distributed in different states, each having at its head a king. But the subject must not be dismissed without a few observations on the kingly office (now by hereditary descent discharged by a queen) as it exists in the British empire.


—The English kingly power is traced to the establishment of Egbert, at the close of the eighth century, as king of the English. His family is illustrated by the talents and virtues of Alfred, and the peacefulness and piety of Edward. On his death there ensued a struggle for the succession between the representative of the Danish kings, who for a while had usurped upon the posterity of Egbert, and William then duke of Normandy. It ended with the success of William at the battle of Hastings, A. D. 1066.


—This is generally regarded as a new beginning of the race of English kings, for William was but remotely allied to the Saxon kings. In his descendants the kingly office has ever since continued; but though the English throne is hereditary, it is not hereditary in a sense perfectly absolute, nor does it seem to have been ever so considered. When Henry I. was dead, leaving only a daughter, named Maud, she did not succeed to the throne; and when Stephen died, his son did not succeed, but the crown passed to the son of Maud. Again, on the death of Richard I. a younger brother succeeded, to the exclusion of the son and daughter of the deceased. Then ensued a long series of regular and undisputed successions; but when Richard II. was deposed, the crown passed to his cousin, Henry of Lancaster, son of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III., though there were descendants living of Lionel, duke of Clarence, who was older than John among the children of Edward III. When the rule of Henry VI. became weak, the issue of Lionel advanced their claim. The struggle was long and bloody. It ended in a kind of compromise, the chief of the Lancastrian party taking to wife the heiress of the Yorkists. From that marriage have sprung all the later kings, and the principle of hereditary succession remained undisturbed till the reign of King William III., who was called to the throne on the abdication of James II., when an act was passed excluding the male issue of James, the issue of his sister the duchess of Orleans, and the issue of his aunt the queen of Bohemia, with the exception of her youngest daughter the Princess Sophia and her issue, who were Protestants. On the death of Queen Anne this law of succession took effect in favor of King George I., son of the Princess Sophia.


—Now the heir succeeds to the throne immediately on the decease of his predecessor, so that the king, as the phrase is, never dies. The course of descent is to the sons and their issue, according to seniority; and if there is a failure of male issue, the crown descends to a female. The person who succeeds by descent to the crown of England, succeeds also to the kingly office in Scotland and Ireland, and in all the possessions of the British empire.


—At the coronation of the king he makes oath to three things that he will govern according to law; that he will cause justice to be administered; and that he will maintain the Protestant church.


—His person is sacred. He can not by any process of law be called to account for any of his acts. His concurrence is necessary to every legislative enactment. He sends embassies, makes treaties, and even enters into wars without any previous consultation with parliament. He nominates the judges and other high officers of state, the officers of the army and navy, the governors of colonies and dependencies, and the bishops, deans and some other dignitaries of the church. He calls parliament together, and can at his pleasure prorogue or dissolve it. He is the fountain of honor; all hereditary titles are derived from his grant. He can also grant privileges of an inferior kind, such as markets and fairs.


—This is a very slight sketch of the powers that belong to the kings of England; but the exercise of any or all of these powers is practically limited. The king can not act politically without an agent, and this agent is not protected by that irresponsibility which belongs to the king himself, but may be brought to account for his acts if he transgresses the law. The agents by whom the king acts are his ministers, whom the king selects and dismisses at his pleasure; but practically he can not keep a ministry which can not command a majority in the house of commons; and virtually, all the powers of the crown, which make so formidable an array upon paper, are exercised by the chief minister, or prime minister, for the time. The king now does not even attend the cabinet councils; and the power which in theory belongs to his kingly office, and in fact in earlier periods was exercised by him, is now become purely formal. But though the king of England has lost his real power, he has obtained in place of it perfect security for his person, and for the transmission to his descendants of all the honor and respect due to the head of an extensive and powerful empire.


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