Liberty and Liberalism
By Bruce Smith
Biographical Remarks on Arthur Bruce Smith (1851-1937)
by David M. HartBruce Smith was an Australian Barrister (a lawyer who is qualified to argue before a judge) and a Member of the Parliament of New South Wales when it was still a self-governing colony before it became one of the states in the federal Commonwealth of Australia (1901). He also went on to have a parliamentary career after Federation. I first came across Smith’s name while doing research on 19th century French free trade thought in the Mitchell Library (the State Library of NSW). One of the issues that had made the debates over Federalism so bitter in Australia was the fact that the state of New South Wales (capital of Sydney) was very pro-free trade, while the state of Victoria (capital city Melbourne) was very protectionist. Unfortunately for Australian economic history, the new Federal government adopted Victorian-style protectionism and free-trading NSW had to abandon its position if it wished to join the Federation. Thus for nearly 75 years, until deregulation became government policy again in the 1970s, Australia was a strongly protectionist nation. However, as a result of NSW’s strong 19th century free trade tradition the State Library had a very impressive collection of free trade writings in both the English and French languages, hence my interest in their holdings. It was while doing research on
Gustave de Molinari and other French classical liberals that I came across Smith’s book “Liberty and Liberalism”. Upon closer examination I realised that Smith was one of the very few (perhaps the only one) Spencerite liberals in the Australian colonies. As he says in his introduction, while doing research for this book he came across the writings of the English “Liberty and Property Defence League” which was a group of radical individualists and free traders who had among their members
Thomas Mackay and Auberon Herbert (whose books we have online at Econlib). Although he was not a member of the League, their guiding spirit was
Herbert Spencer. Smith came to share many of their ideas as the book will show. We present it online as part of our ongoing series of critiques of socialist thought.
David M. Hart
May 3, 2004
First Pub. Date
London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
A brief review of the principal struggles for civil liberty, from the Norman Conquest to the Reform Bill of 1832.
“The history of England is the history of a government constantly giving way, sometimes peaceably, sometimes after a violent struggle, but constantly giving way, before a nation which has been constantly advancing.”—LORD MACAULAY.
“English history stands alone as the history of the progress of a great people towards liberty, during six centuries.”—SIR JAMES MACKINTOSH.
“It seems needful to remind everybody what Liberalism was in the past, that they may perceive its unlikeness to the so-called Liberalism of the present.”—HERBERT SPENCER.
WHATEVER else may be claimed to be connoted by the word “man,” in the hundred and one definitions which have been attempted concerning him, he may at least be written down, and with some degree of safety, as a “progressive animal.” “Man alone, among organised beings,” says Sir George Cornewall Lewis, “possesses the moral and intellectual qualities which render one generation of human beings
unlike another, and which enable him to
alter his own condition and that of others by self-culture. Hence, he alone, of all living beings, possesses a history.”
Whether we judge man by the meagre evidence which we possess concerning him and his movements in prehistoric times, or by the more elaborate accounts which have been handed down to us from different ages, since he acquired the faculty of committing his thoughts to writing, we are irresistibly forced to the conclusion that he is constantly on the move towards what he conceives to be, and hopes to be, a more civilised condition of living, that is to say, a condition of living which he supposes will afford him a larger share of happiness than he has hitherto enjoyed. I say “what he conceives to be” advisedly, because he, not unfrequently, loses his way, mistakes retrogression for progression, and, not seldom, is forced to retrace his steps and start afresh in another and quite different direction or course of conduct.
History affords very numerous instances of communities having got off the track, as it were, of real progress, and being compelled thus to make, in some cases, many attempts, before they could regain the course from which they had diverged—having become, in the meantime wiser, if not sadder, by the painful experience. The “decline and fall” of the Romans, as a people, was nothing more than this—a falsely conceived social organisation, lacking soundness of foundation, which therefore had to come down. The edifice had to be recommenced from what remained of the scattered fragments. Man had in this case simply missed his way, mistaken a state of society for progressive which was really retrogressive, and the march had again to be commenced, after travelling a considerable distance in a circle.
The French Revolution is another remarkable instance of the same process. The wanton extravagance of the Court, the Church and the Aristocracy; the concurrent disregard for the interests of the masses of the people as also for their civil and religious liberties—all this meeting a broad current
of political enlightenment which was then spreading over Europe, could end in one way only, that is, as it did. The social fabric fell to pieces, and out of the débris had to be constructed a differently organised society: a new order of things. All this, too, after a momentous lesson had been taught to mankind in general.
These memorable events in history are the great human errors which have been committed by reason of a want of knowledge of the nature of man, of the science of society, of the art of government. “History,” says Bolingbroke, “is philosophy teaching by example,” and the philosophy or moral of all such great events is that we should study, more than those who went before us did, the nature of man as an individual, the science of society as an organisation, and the art of government as applied to that organisation.
“The science of government,” says Macaulay, “is an experimental science, and like all other experimental sciences it is generally working itself clearer and clearer and depositing impurity after impurity.” “There was a time,” he says, “when the most enlightened statesmen thought it the first duty of a government to persecute heretics, to found monasteries, to make war on Saracens; but,” he adds, “time advances; facts accumulate; doubts arise. Faint glimpses of truth begin to appear and shine more and more unto the perfect day. The highest intellects, like the tops of mountains, are the first to catch and reflect the dawn…. First come hints, then fragments of systems, then defective systems, then complete and harmonious systems.”
If one wishes to fully realise the steady but sure progress which man is making, throughout all these great political errors and miscalculations regarding his fellow-men, their wants, their passions, and their proclivities, one must view history broadly. Then, and then only, shall we see that the
temporary delays and backward movements, which in themselves present the appearance of absolutely retrogressive steps, are mere oscillations in the great forward march of the human race. This thought also has been beautifully expressed in regard to England by the eloquent and versatile Macaulay. “The history of England,” he says, “when we take a comprehensive view of it, is a history of progress; but when examined in small separate portions, it may, with more propriety, be called a history of actions and reactions. The public mind resembles a sea, when the tide is rising; each successive wave rushes forward, breaks and rolls back; but the great flood is steadily coming in. A person who looked on the waters, only for a moment, might fancy that they were retiring. A person who looked on them, only for five minutes, might fancy that they were rushing capriciously to and fro. But when he keeps his eye on them for a quarter of an hour, and sees one sea-mark disappear after another, it is impossible for him to doubt of the general direction in which the ocean is moved. Just such has been the course of events in England. In the history of the national mind, which is, in truth, the history of the nation, we must carefully distinguish between that recoil which regularly follows every advance, and a general ebb.” Buckle says much the same thing: “This is the ebb and flow of history: the perpetual flux to which, by the laws of our nature, we are subject. Above all this there is a far higher movement; and as the tide rolls on, now advancing, now receding, there is, amid its endless fluctuations, one thing and one alone which endures for ever.”
That these receding movements have their use there can be no doubt, though it would be better if we could learn the truths which they convey less painfully. It is from them, however, that we store up the reactionary power which gives impetus to the next onward movement. France emerged from the Revolution a more free, a more happy
and withal a wiser nation, and one of the greatest lessons in the science of government which was ever taught to men, was thus handed down for subsequent generations. Now, it will be found, from what I term a “broad” view of history, that the progress of society (using the word in its widest acceptation) has always been proportionate to the freedom of its institutions. The tyranny of monarchy and aristocratic government in France, as also the unequal opportunities afforded to its citizens, together with the erroneous notion regarding fundamental differences among men, produced a reaction in favour of such sentiments as “Liberty, equality and fraternity.”
The despotism of the Eastern world, under which millions of human beings lived and died in the enjoyment of less freedom than the dumb animals around them, has resulted in nothing but ruin—ruin of whole nations, extending over whole ages.
That these millions of human beings should have never organised themselves and resisted the slavish treatment, to which they were subjected, is only to be accounted for by the fact that they were physically a poor race of people, whose wants were simple, and whose lot was cast in climates of the most enervating character; with whom the struggle for existence also was not sufficiently keen to lead to insubordination and rebellion. “History and observation,” says Sir Erskine May, “alike attest that tropical regions have been the ever-lasting abodes of despotism: where kings, chiefs and priests have governed, from time immemorial, without control, and where the people have been unresisting subjects and slaves. Temperate climes alone,” he adds, “have been the homes of freedom.”
Elsewhere the same writer offers an explanation of this distinction. “A hot climate and a fertile soil multiply the means of subsistence and foster the rapid growth of population.
The wants of the multitude are few and easily gratified…. Nor can it be doubted that great heat is enervating alike to the minds and bodies of men—disinclining them to vigorous thought and action, and disposing them to a languid acquiescence in their accustomed lot.”
The inhabitants of Europe, and especially of the northern parts, might have easily had predicted for them a different history. Living in a cold and bracing climate, not warm enough to enervate, and not rigorous enough to limit activity, where the amount of nourishment required by the human body is much greater than in a warmer zone; where, too, on account of the same cause, much more elaborate wants in the form of clothing and habitations had to be supplied to secure ordinary comfort, it can be easily understood that by the continuous energy, enterprise, and industry rendered necessary to such a people, they should not long allow to remain unused the powers of self-help and of resistance, which they might, at any time, by a little organisation, bring to bear on their oppressors. Sir Erskine May himself, drawing his conclusions from Buckle, says: “In colder climates… the bounties of nature are less prodigal: their wants are multiplied and more difficult to satisfy: their good clothing and dwellings are more costly. Hence the growth of population is checked: the value of labour is sustained: the people share in the distribution of the wealth of the country, and the general condition of society is improved and progressive. The strength and spirit of such men are braced by a temperate climate, by constant labour and enterprise, and by the hope of social advancement. And these (he adds) are the qualities which arouse resistance to oppression and fit men for the enjoyment of freedom.”
The step which man has made from the condition of mere slavery, under which he lived in the earlier stages of
the world’s history, to the condition of civilisation and freedom which he now enjoys in the Western world, is indeed difficult to realise.
When I speak thus of man, I refer to the masses of the human race who, in former times, were regarded as the mere creatures of the comparatively few who then held the reins of power, but who now stand, each and all, at least in English-speaking communities, possessed of the most absolute freedom of thought, of opinion, and of action “limited alone by the like freedom of all.” This great stride. from the lowest depths of slavery and degradation to the highest level of civilised citizenship, would, if traced through all its stages, involve not simply much, but
all history. These stages, however, are well marked for those whose province it is to study them. My present purpose covers a much narrower ground, viz., the history of the struggle for civil liberty in Great Britain, so far as it is capable of illustrating that principle of social evolution by which man is ever striving for a larger degree of personal freedom and individual development, even though it frequently happen (as we have seen) that he fails to rightly judge how, or in what direction, that end is to be most surely attained.
I have thought fit to make the foregoing general observations because the principle of the gradual growth of civil freedom, which the wider history involves, is, in my opinion, the key-note, to the narrower branch of history with which I am chiefly concerned. It is in the highest degree probable that the practice of designating any member of any legislative or other deliberative body by some name, which briefly summarised the principles which had been observed as a general rule to actuate his conduct and demeanour as such member, came into existence almost, if not quite, as soon as the institution of Parliament itself. Nor do I refer merely to the advent of constitutional government, for the same practice would doubtless obtain in
large assemblies of the most primitive character—even among tribal communities.
The actual origin of legislation or government is, as far as written history can inform us, obscure. Many writers, necessarily somewhat speculative on such a subject, offer theories, tracing back the institution even to “the family”
*5 or “the household,” which I presume is the most extreme limit, since it reaches almost to the level of ordinary animal life. The stage of society, next in advance of the family or household, would obviously be the tribe, and it is highly probable that, at that stage, when many heads of families or “households” came into close communion, it was regarded as desirable to determine upon some governing individual, or group of individuals, to settle questions, regarding which, the undivided action of the whole, was essential to the welfare of the individual families. It is equally probable that the head or chief of the tribe was frequently self-constituted—that is, assumed the position by sheer force of character or of arms, and derived his authority as leader from the mere fact of the rest of his tribe tacitly acknowledging his superiority, and grouping themselves about his person as subjects and dependents. The following is an interesting (and of course speculative) opinion by Hooker, who is extensively quoted by Locke in dealing with the subject of “primitive government:”—”To take away all such mutual grievances, injuries, and wrongs, such as attend men in the state of nature, there was no way but only by growing into composition and agreement among themselves; by ordaining some kind of government public, and by yielding themselves subject thereto, that unto whom they granted authority to rule and govern them, the peace, tranquility, and happy estate of the rest might be procured.” “The end of civil society (to use the words of Locke himself)
is to avoid and remedy those inconveniences of the state of nature which necessarily follow from every man’s being judge in his own case, by setting up a known authority to which everyone of that society may appeal upon any injury received or controversy that may arise, and which everyone of the society ought to obey.” That the “known authority” of Locke, and the “government public” of Hooker originated in the parent, is confirmed by Sir Henry Maine, who says, “The most recent researches into the primitive history of society point to the conclusion that the earliest tie which knitted men together in communities, was consanguinity or kinship,”
*6 and the “learned” Sir Robert Filmer commences the first chapter of his “Patriarcha” with the proposition “That the first Kings were Fathers of Families.”
Assuming, then, that these are correct statements of the origin of government, an assumption requiring no great stretch of imagination, but rather one which recommends itself to the reason, there can be, I venture to think, little doubt, that if, from such a starting-point, all rules of conduct, which were subsequently laid down by chiefs, kings and legislatures respectively, had been based upon the sound principle of “equal opportunities,” instead of that which reserves special privileges for the few, society would, at the present day, be far in advance of its existing condition of growing unrest and discontent.
But the idea of “equal opportunities” was obviously far from being recognised as the scientific or even just test by which tribal rules, or, in more advanced times, sovereign edicts and parliamentary legislation should be tried. When it became necessary, as a stage beyond the parent, to obtain the “known authority” of whom Locke speaks, he was provided in the shape of a chief, or king, or “able man,” as Carlyle calls him. But it would then (and probably did)
become a question, whether the chief, or king himself, could do wrong. There would be no one to appeal to, in the event of such a contingency arising, nor could his decision, if favourable to himself, be questioned; and he would, naturally drift, as he became more conscious of his unlimited or at least very wide powers, into the position and habits of a dictator, whose word was incapable of being questioned. Moreover, if he were the brave or “able” man of his tribe, there would be little inclination to question his authority, or even the justice of his decisions. Thus, most probably, did society drift into the condition of subservience to kingly power, the abuse of which ultimately led to the spirit of rebellion against Royal prerogatives, as opposed to what were termed the “rights of the people.”
Locke says, bearing upon this point, “Wherever any persons are, who have not such an authority to appeal to and decide any difference between them there, those persons are still in the state of nature. And so is every absolute prince in respect of those who are under his dominion.”
Coming now to history proper—that is to say, written history—we find that kings, and probably chiefs and other less important monarchs before them, developed a disposition to adopt what historians call “favourites,” that is to say certain persons who proved congenial as companions to the particular monarch, and had a sort of kingly license by which they enjoyed more than an “equal” share of “opportunities.” This was probably the first departure from true liberalism in history, next after that by which the king claimed to himself greater privileges than he could allow between his subjects. These favourites have almost invariably been recipients of some distinguishing mark of patronage, as an expression of the favour in which they were held. Hence the order of “nobles;” and, following upon this distinction, it is but an easy stage to that state of things, by which they
became invested with some of the “privileges,” not enjoyed by the ordinary people of their time.
Herein lies what I conceive to be the explanation of the origin of the feudal system, as introduced into England by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century.
The nobles of that monarch, as is well known by every reader of early English history, exercised over their vassals the most complete and absolute dominion; and instead of the latter possessing or enjoying “equal opportunities,” they, and their families, were overwhelmed with duties and obligations, and burdened with restrictions on their liberty, which left them with about as much freedom as was possessed by the African slave previous to 1806. To use the words of a historian: “The masses of the people were depressed by heavy burdens, enslaved by varied wrongs and paralysed by superstitious fears. They were credulous and poor, and had neither liberty, knowledge, nor ambition.”
From this condition of things, there is discernable, throughout history, a gradual growth of popular freedom, marked more particularly by such epochs as the Magna Charta in 1215, the Petition of Right in 1628, the Habeas Corpus Act in 1678, the Revolution in 1688, and the Reform Bill of 1832. First the king was supreme; then the people were allowed to take a part in the government; next the people imposed restrictions upon the power of the king, and finally the monarch was transformed, as is the case now, into a sort of national “figure head,” receiving income and privileges by the consent of a free and self-governing people. All these great social movements, each constituting, as it were, the practical expression of a long-pent public grievance, may be classified under the heading of “the growth of liberalism.” Those movements consisted (with one exception) of public protests against the abuse of power on the part of the respective monarchs, in whose reign they developed and culminated; and they had the effect of
“freeing” or “liberating” the people from the yoke of monarchical power, under which they and their ancestors had lived for centuries. The exception was the Reform Bill, which was a protest against the monopoly of parliamentary representation by a class.
“It has been usual,” as Sir Erskine May says, in his “Democracy in Europe,” “to conduct controversies regarding political institutions and forms of government as if they were simply founded upon abstract experience; as if monarchies and republics had been established upon
à priori theories, and were to be judged according to their approach to some ideal polity. It is not in this spirit that history is to be studied. If any instruction is to be gained, it will be by the investigation of the moral, social, and physical causes which have contributed to the rise, growth, and overthrow of institutions—of
free monarchies, of
aristocracies, and of
republics.” These last words, in fact, stand in the order in which the various social steps, which led to their overthrow, have occurred.
Though the word “liberalism” has been first used in, and received its interpretation from much later times than those of which I have been speaking, nevertheless it is very necessary to study those periods in order to fully and clearly understand the principle which underlies the spirit of
liberty and freedom that the word is intended to signify.
Such an investigation, especially if prosecuted with some particularity, will show that the more modern school of politics, to which that title has been applied, is founded upon the identical principles of
freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and
freedom of action, for which the people of various countries, but especially our own, have, for centuries, been struggling—the determination to possess, at all hazards, “equal opportunities” with other men, irrespective of family, irrespective of kingly favour, and irrespective of wealth. “Britain,” says an eloquent writer on Reform,
“once a land of savage pagans, was long subsequent to the Norman Conquest, the abode of ignorance, superstition, and despotism. And, though for centuries past, she has witnessed a steady advance in knowledge and in civil and religious liberty—though her men of letters have sent down to posterity works that shall live till science, philosophy, and poetry are known no more; though her lawyers have gradually worn off the rugged features of the feudal system till the common law of England has been adopted as the basis of the Republican Code of America; though her Church long since yielded to the attacks of non-conformity and sanctioned a liberal toleration—though all that was vital and dangerous in the maxim, ‘The king can do no wrong,’ fell with the head of Charles I. in 1649—yet it is only
within the last fifty years that she has sanctioned the changes in her institutions long counselled by a class of innovators designated as Reformers.”
It is over the longer period that we need to ponder, in order to discover, and arrive at some certainty, regarding the general principle which should be conveyed by the particular term under consideration. Let us turn to history itself, as recorded by those who have made it their special study.
Though the term “Liberalism” is, therefore, of comparatively modern use, in order that its meaning and bearing may be traced and understood, it is necessary to go back to these earlier times, and investigate the history in which, without resort to political party-titles, the same principle which animates the truer interpreters of the word in our own day, spurred on our forefathers in the earlier struggles for freedom and the building up of our oft-extolled constitution.
The Norman Conquest was naturally and of necessity a great shock to the inhabitants of England, and so unequal were they to the comprehensive and overwhelming invasion to which they were subjected, that, as a nation, they dropped,
for the time being, into a condition of absolute slavery. But, says De Lolme, “it is to the era of the Conquest that we are to look for the real foundation of the English constitution.”
I shall, from this epoch in English records, trace, with fitting brevity, the history of the principle of Liberalism—a principle which has, at various periods, been recognised and acted upon, under different and changing titles, and has, at all times, spurred on, to fresh thoughts and fresh actions, all who could see, in the future, an improved condition of civil and religious freedom, based upon the even broader principle of the “equality of men.” To go behind this period in history would lead me into fields quite beyond my present purpose—into the histories, in fact, of the various peoples who formed the constituent parts of the much mixed nation, now known as Great Britain. I need not, therefore, carry my investigations further back than the Conquest of England, to discover how, and under what circumstances that principle first took root.
The author of the “History of the English People” has characterised the charter granted on the accession to the throne of Henry I. as not only the “direct precedent for the Great Charter of John,” but, also, as “the
first limitation which had been imposed on the despotism established by the Conquest.”
This epoch is therefore in every way a suitable starting-point for my short sketch. In order to fully and clearly realise the nature and extent of the memorable concession to civil freedom, which that charter involved, it is necessary to remember what were the social and political conditions of the people of England, prior to that event. Macaulay says, “The battle of Hastings, and the events which followed it, not only placed a Duke of Normandy on the English throne, but gave up the whole population of
England to the tyranny of the Norman race. The subjugation of a nation by a nation,” he says, “has seldom, even in Asia, been more complete. The country was portioned out among the captains of the invaders. Strong military institutions, closely connected with the institution of property, enabled the foreign conquerors to oppress the children of the soil. A cruel penal code, cruelly enforced, guarded the privileges, and even the sports of the alien tyrants.”
*9 Hume speaks of William the Conqueror as having ”
appeared,” immediately after ascending the English throne, “solicitous to unite, in an amicable manner, the Normans and the English, by inter-marriages and alliances,” and says that “all his new subjects, who approached his person, were received with affability and regard.”
*10 “But,” he adds, “amidst this confidence and friendship, which he expressed for the English, he took care to place all real power in the hands of his Normans.” However, notwithstanding any good disposition which he may, as a conqueror, have felt towards the English, in the first flush of victory, there can be little doubt that, after his almost immediate return to Normandy, and reappearance in England, during which time the English and the Normans had again come into conflict, he showed little, if any respect, for the promises which he had made under the coronation oath, one of which was “to administer justice and to repress violence.”
*11 As a fact, the conquerors and the conquered failed to harmonise, and though in public and domestic life everything seemed favourable to the king, “the discontents of his English subjects augmented daily, and the injuries, committed and suffered on both sides, rendered the quarrel, between them and the Normans, absolutely incurable. The insolence of the victorious masters, dispersed throughout the kingdom, seemed intolerable to the natives.”
Hume adds that the English people, in a great measure, had “lost all national pride and spirit,” by their recent and long subjection to the Danes. However that may be, they quickly fell into a condition of abject subordination to their insolent and high-handed victors. Instead of being governed by “equal laws,” as had been promised, they were, on every occasion, and, under all circumstances, denied even the most common justice. “It was crime sufficient in an Englishman to be opulent, or noble, or powerful; and the policy of the king, concurring with the rapacity of foreign adventurers, produced almost a total revolution in the landed property of the kingdom. Ancient and honourable families were reduced to beggary, the nobles themselves were everywhere treated with ignominy and contempt; they had the mortification of seeing their castles and manors possessed by Normans, of the meanest birth, and lowest stations, and they found themselves carefully excluded from every road which led either to riches or preferment.
*13 Then was introduced the feudal laws and the feudal system. The whole of the lands of England, with few exceptions, were divided into baronies, which were conferred, subject to certain services and payments, upon the most important among the king’s followers.
*14 These barons, then, subdivided their estates, among the less important of the Normans, called knights or vassals. These latter became liable to the same obligations to the particular baron, under whom they held, as had been undertaken by him in the king’s behalf. The whole of England is said to have been thus divided into seven hundred chief tenancies or baronies, and sixty thousand two hundred and fifteen knight-fees. No Englishmen were
included among the former class, and the few, who managed to retain their property, were compelled to reconcile themselves to being included among the latter, subject, of course, to a Norman baron as landlord, as also to the numerous burdens of service, etc., which such a tenancy entailed—this, too, notwithstanding that their respective estates had been, previously, freeholds, acquired by inheritance, and in no way encumbered with any such obligations.
*15 These under tenants were required to swear allegiance to their particular baron, in the following words: “Hear, my Lord, I become liege man of yours, for life, and limb, and earthly regard; and I will keep faith and loyalty to you, for life and death; God help me”; and this comprehensive obligation was entered into while the dependant kneeled, without arms, and bare-headed, at the feet of his superior; his hands being placed in those of the latter.
*16 It is said that, under this system, the king could at any moment summon sixty thousand knights to the royal standard. In addition to these two classes, it must be remembered that there was a lower order, called
Villeins, concerning whom it is an open question whether they were not actual slaves. They certainly were so, in all but name, inasmuch as the lord had the power of life or death over them. In summing up his account of the oppression which this conquest inflicted upon the English people, Macaulay says: “During the century and a half which followed it, there is, to speak strictly,
no English history,” and Hume, in the same way says: “The introduction of the feudal law had much infringed the
liberties, however imperfect, enjoyed by the Anglo-Saxons in their ancient government, and had reduced the whole people to a state of vassalage under the king or barons, and even the greater part of them to a state of real slavery.”
Such then was the condition of the English people after the Norman Conquest. The King had upon ascending the throne promised “equal laws.” The promise had been broken, and the most glaring inequality existed, not only in possessions, for that had always been and ever will be so, but
in the eye of the law, which need not, and should not have been. The Normans were, in short, the recipients of extensive
privileges, at the expense of those they had conquered. Let us now see the course which events took. Discontent must have followed, and quickly found expression; for a collection of laws, called the “Magna Charta of William the Conqueror,” has been preserved, in which the King seems to have entered into the following treaty with his subjects, constituting a substantial concession, considering the times, to the principle of liberalism or freedom: “We will enjoin and grant, (so it runs), that all freemen of our kingdom shall
enjoy their land in peace, free from all tallage and from every unjust exaction, so that nothing but their service lawfully due to us shall be demanded at their hands.”
William the Conqueror died in 1087, and, notwithstanding the above undertaking, the condition of the people at his death does not seem to have been in any way an advancement on that of twenty years previous. Hume says, speaking of the year 1087: “It would be difficult to find in all history a revolution more destructive, or attended with a more complete subjection of the ancient inhabitants. Contumely seems even to have been wantonly added to oppression; and the natives were universally reduced to such a state of meanness and poverty, that the English name became a term of reproach.
William Rufus claimed to succeed his father, but inasmuch as by doing so he was consciously violating his elder brother’s (Robert) right, he took very hasty measures to
secure the Crown. He displayed a willingness to concede any condition, in order to secure himself in the estimation of his subjects. “As an earnest of his future reign he renounced all the rigid maxims of conquest, and swore to protect the Church and the people, and to govern by St. Edward’s laws; a promise extremely grateful to all parties; for the Normans, finding the English passionately desirous of those laws, and only knowing that they were in general
favourable to liberty, and conducive to peace and order, became equally clamorous for their re-establishment.”
These resolutions, likewise, were ignored, very much in the same manner as was the case with those of his father before him. “The forest laws were executed with rigour, the old impositions revived, and new laid on.”
William Rufus died in the year 1100, and was succeeded by his younger brother, Henry I., who thus, in his turn, usurped his elder brother’s lawful rights. “Knowing,” says Hume, “that the Crown, so usurped, against all rules of justice, would sit unsteady on his head, he resolved by fair professions at least, to gain the affections of all his subjects.”
He seized the opportunity to address the nobility and “a vast concourse of inferior people,” who had been drawn to Winchester, by the news of his brother’s death. After plausibly setting forth his title, on the ground of having been born next after his father had acquired the kingdom,—a ground upon which the nobility retired to consult—he “threw himself entirely upon the populace.” He began by drawing his sword and swearing with a bold and determined air to persist in his pretensions to his last breath.” He “turned to the crowd,” and made “promises of a
milder government than they had experienced, either beneath his brother, or his father: the Church should enjoy
the people their liberties,… the distinction of Englishman and Norman be heard no more.”
As might be expected “the people received this popular harangue, delivered by a prince, whose person was full of grace and majesty, with shouts of joy and rapture. Immediately they rush to the house where the council is held, which they surround, and, with clamour and menaces, demand Henry for their King.”
*22 He confirmed and enlarged the privileges of the city of London, and, in the words of Edmund Burke, “gave to the whole kingdom a
charter of liberties, which was the first of the kind, and laid the foundation of those successive charters, which at last
completed the freedom of the subject.”
*23 Among the numerous provisions of this charter, was one, in which the King promised that the vassals of the barons should enjoy the
same privileges which he granted to his
own barons.*24 In order to give guarantees for his sincerity in making these concessions, he lodged a copy of the charter which contained them, in an abbey of each county; yet it is evident that, as soon as his immediate object had been attained, he showed that he had never seriously intended to observe any part of it. “The whole of it fell so much into neglect and oblivion, that, in the following century, when the barons, who had heard an obscure tradition of it, desired to make it the model of the great charter, which they exacted from King John, they could, with difficulty, find a copy in the kingdom.
*25 This charter was, though by no means observed, “the
first limitation which had been imposed on the despotism established by the Conquest.”
*26 and formed one of the “two great measures, which, following his (Henry’s) coronation, mark “the
new relation which was then brought about between the
people and their King.”
Such was the first great concession, in English history, to the spirit of true liberalism; and it consisted in the undertaking to grant
equal liberties to all men, irrespective of race or social status. We shall presently see that this obligation, like most others of those times, was made, only to be ignored and forgotten by him who made it.
Let us pass now to a still greater epoch in the history of liberalism. Hume says, speaking generally of these charters: “Henry I., that he might allure the people to give an exclusion to his elder brother Robert, had granted them a charter, favourable in many particulars to their
liberties; Stephen had renewed the grant; Henry II. had confirmed it. But the concessions of all these princes had still remained without effect, and the same unlimited, at least irregular authority, continued to be exercised, both by them and their successors.”
In the succeeding reign of John, all the unreasonable and irritating demands, which had been made by his predecessors, were greatly intensified, and accompanied with further acts of tyranny, of an even more unbearable nature. “One is surprised,” says Hallam, “at the forbearance displayed by the barons, till they took arms at length in that confederacy which ended in establishing the
Great Charter of Liberties.”
*29 Historians seem to vie with one another in their endeavours to picture the domineering and oppressive conduct of King John. “Equally odious and contemptible,” says Hume, “both in public and private life, he affronted the barons by his insolence, dishonoured their families by his gallantries, enraged them by his tyranny, and gave discontent to all ranks of men by his endless exactions and impositions.”
*30 In addition to all these forms of insolence and tyranny, which it is difficult to understand that one man should be allowed to practise on a whole nation, there yet remained many portions of the feudal law, as introduced by the
Conqueror, which had, by abuse and arbitrary administration, become constant sources of discontent and rebellious feeling.
One of the most useful generalisations which, in my opinion, it is possible to draw from history is that which teaches what I might term the law of social oscillation. Every historical student must have observed that society, when viewed over long periods of time, seems to pass through successive stages, somewhat analagous to the motions of a pendulum—that is to say, whenever, by reason of its surrounding circumstances, it is forced into any extreme condition, involving an abnormal state of mind on the part of the individuals who compose it, there almost inevitably follows a reactionary movement, similarly extreme, though in the contrary direction. Thus, as Burke says, “Our best securities for freedom have been obtained from princes, who were either warlike, or prodigal, or both,”
*31 and again, as stated by De Tocqueville, “Liberty is generally established in the midst of agitation; it is perfected by civil discord.”
We have an instance of the sociological law in question, in the fact that this very oppression and tyranny, to which the people of England were subjected, and the almost slavish condition, to which they were, in consequence, reduced, constituted the very source of their future freedom.
“It was,” says De Lolme, “the excessive power of the king which made England free; because it was this very excess that gave rise to the spirit of union and of coresistance. Possessed of extensive demesnes, the king found himself independent; vested with the most formidable prerogatives, he crushed, at pleasure, the most powerful barons in the realm. It was only by close and numerous confederacies, therefore, that these could resist his tyranny;
they even were compelled to associate the people in them, and make them partners of public liberty.”
The confederacy which was entered into, to put an end to this unbearable state of things, as it existed under John, was greatly assisted, if not even initiated by the then Archbishop of Canterbury—by name Langton—who, conceiving that an acquisition of liberty to the people would contribute towards the powers of his Church, took an extremely practical and useful part in framing some of the most important clauses of the Great Charter, and insisted upon them, as conditions precedent to his (John’s) avoidance of excommunication. He obtained possession, from one of the monasteries, of a copy of Henry the First’s charter, and, having shown it to some of the most influential barons of his time, urged them to demand its recognition and observance by the King. The feeling grew from day to day, and a large meeting of barons was again held, this time “under colour of devotion.” Langton once more used his powerful and eloquent exhortations, in order to bring about the desired result. The barons, thereupon, entered into a solemn compact, sealed with an oath, that they would never desist until they had obtained an equally solemn undertaking from the King on the subject of their liberties. They resolved to prepare an armed force, and to meet again when their plans were matured. When the time arrived for taking the final step, they boldly demanded of the King “a renewal of Henry’s charter, and a confirmation of the laws of St. Edward.” “Hitherto the barons had fought for themselves alone: now they became the national leaders in maintaining the liberties of England.”
*33 The King asked for time, and offered valuable sureties. Meanwhile he sought, by conceding great privileges to the Church, to baffle the plans of the barons, and certainly succeeded in some measure in winning the partisanship of the Pope; but the
barons, having first made an appeal to Rome, quickly assembled a large force of armed retainers, and advanced towards the King’s residence, whence he sent a messenger desiring to know the barons’ terms. They delivered him a record of their principal demands; but when he learned its contents, he broke into a furious passion, and vowed he would never grant such concessions.
Immediately the barons chose a leader, and proceeded to levy war upon the King: besieged castles and palaces belonging to him, threatened anybody and everybody who ventured to join in his defence, and, finally, became such masters of the position, that, after numerous attempts at compromise, the King, surrounded by only a few followers, was forced to arrange a meeting, in order to confer with the barons finally, regarding their demands. The meeting-place was the celebrated Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines. The two parties formed separate camps, and, after several days’ debate, the King was forced to sign the Great Charter, which, in the words of Hume, “secured very important
liberties and privileges to every order of men in the kingdom, to
the clergy, to the barons, and to the people.“
Let us consider now, in less general terms, what this Great Charter did for our ancestors, and for us.
It is but natural and reasonable that, inasmuch as the barons were themselves the head and front of the movement, they should have turned their attention more particularly to their own interests; but, inasmuch also as they required the concurrence of “the people,” in the bold step they were taking, they found it advisable, if not necessary, to take into consideration the interests of that class also, which they accordingly did. Sir Erskine May says: “Hitherto the barons had fought for themselves alone, now they became the national leaders in maintaining the
liberties of England.” Moreover, it is evident that the barons themselves had been guilty of tyranny and oppression to those
under them, quite as great, and as galling, as that displayed by the King.
It would not be interesting, and, even if it were, it would scarcely be in place, here, to go fully and particularly into the numerous aspects of civil liberty which the Great Charter attempted to place upon a firm and settled basis. The provisions of the charter have, as a whole, been described as “strung together in a disorderly manner.”
*35 Generally speaking, they were as follow, consisting principally of “either abatements in the rigour of the feudal law, or determinations in points which had been left by that law, or had become by practice arbitrary and ambiguous.”
The preamble or opening address to the charter begins thus: “To all archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, sheriffs, provosts, officers, and to all bailiffs and other our faithful subjects, etc… Know ye that we…have granted…these
liberties following, to be kept in our kingdom of England for ever.” Following this there were thirty-seven chapters, the first being a confirmation of liberties in the following words: “We have granted to God, and, by our present chapter have confirmed for us, and our heirs, for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole
rights and liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the freemen of our realm, for us, and our heirs, for ever, these
liberties underwritten: to have and to hold them and their heirs of us and our heirs for ever.”
Chapter 2 deals with the subject of “reliefs.” As all the King’s tenants were supposed to have received their lands by his gift, it was customary, upon the death of an ancestor, for the heir to purchase a continuance of the king’s favour, by paying a sum of money called a “relief,” for entering into the estate. When the conquest was over, this practice
was “much abused and perverted.” The above-mentioned chapter therefore provided that such payment should not be arbitrary, but fixed according to the rank of the heir.
By chapter 7 it was enacted that widows of knights might marry as they chose, without deductions being made from their dower; and that if they chose to remain single, they should not be compelled to marry. Hitherto the baron had possessed the power of compelling widows of their knights to marry whom they pleased, and, as may be easily imagined, the power had been greatly abused.
The 9th chapter perpetuates the right of self-government, “the source and bulwark,” as it has been called, “of our constitutional
freedom;” and it preserved to London and all other cities, boroughs, and towns” all their
free customs. The 10th chapter prevented excessive distress for more service than was due for a knight’s fee. This power to distrain had previously been greatly abused by “compelling a compliance with unjust demands.”
The 14th chapter provided against excessive fines; laid down the principle that they should always be in proportion to the gravity of the offence, and instituted the now well-known rule of law that a man’s tools, instruments, or other possessions necessary for his support and maintenance should be free from any such fine or process. This was in all probability demanded by the barons, in order that their dependants might not be deprived of their only means of performing their service to them, for we are told that “nothing more required mitigation than the rigour with which the King’s debts were exacted and levied.”
During the reigns of Richard and John, many exactions had been made for erecting bulwarks, fortresses, bridges, and banks, contrary to law and right. The 15th chapter of the charter declared that no freeman should be distrained for the purpose, except in certain specified cases, limited in number. Previous to the charter also, there seems to have
been a tendency, possibly a common practice, of appropriating certain fisheries in various parts of the different rivers, which were common property. This practice was probably indulged in by the more powerful. The 16th chapter, however, remedied the abuse, and restored to each his original rights.
The 29th chapter is the most important of all, and constitutes the very corner-stone of our civil liberties. It runs thus: “No freeman shall be
imprisoned, or be
deprived of his freehold or
free customs, or be
exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we pass upon him, nor condemn him but by
lawful judgment of his peers, or by the
law of the land. To no man will we sell, to no man
deny, to no man
delay justice or right.“
The 30th chapter provided that all merchants (meaning foreigners) should pass in and out of England by land or by water, for purposes of buying or selling, without tolls or extortions of any kind, and established the principle that in time of war, merchants from other countries, when found in England, should have just the same treatment extended to them which was being accorded to English merchants in that particular country from which those merchants came. Reeve says: “Previous to the charter, and for many years, merchants had been subjected to ruthless extortion, under the names of tolls, in going through the lands of these feudal tyrants to get to the towns where they carried on their trade.” This chapter removed the restriction, or at least gave them whatever protection the law could afford in such rude times.
The concluding chapter of the charter contains the curious fiction that the whole of it has been bought from the Crown for a certain proportion of movable property, in consideration of which, the King grants “for us and our heirs, that neither we nor our heirs shall attempt to do
anything whereby the
liberties contained in this charter may be infringed or broken.” There were numerous other provisions, in this great and memorable document, but not such as would be of interest to set forth here.
Throughout all those which we have quoted, there must be evident to every intelligent reader, one great principle, viz., that the sovereign was simply giving to his subjects
additional liberty, to do as they chose with
their own property, and to exercise in what direction they chose the
personal freedom, which the law should secure to every human being, subject only to the equal freedom in others. By the feudal law the king was, rightly or wrongly, taken to possess and to be justified in exercising the most complete control over the property and personal liberty of his subjects. That control had, as is natural, been much abused, until the tyranny of the monarch became unbearable. Then the subjects turned, and going back as it were to first principles, questioned the right of the monarch to hold his subjects in such a condition of thraldom. The result was nothing more or less than a giving up by the sovereign of a large part of such
control, whereby the previously curtailed
liberties of the barons, and the people, were extended. Both classes experienced an
accession of freedom. This great charter therefore is, according to the principle for which I am contending, true Liberalism, inasmuch as it was a contribution towards the aggregate amount of
liberty enjoyed by the members of the community; or, in other words, inasmuch as by it, a larger aggregate amount of liberty was bestowed than was taken away. To show, too, that in putting this construction upon the great charter, I am not striving after any strained interpretation—or seeking to exaggerate its true bearing—let me quote some of the opinions found concerning it by historians:
Guizot, the French historian, has characterised it as “the origin of
free institutions in England.”
Hume says, speaking of the concessions which it contained: “The barbarous
license of the kings, and perhaps of the nobles, was thenceforth somewhat
more restrained; men acquired some
more security for their properties and their liberties.”
Elsewhere Hume speaks of its provisions, as constituting “the most sacred rampart to
national liberty and independence.”
Hallam characterises it as the “great charter of
liberties,” and “the key stone of English
liberty.” “Its beauty consists,” he says in “an
equal distribution of civil rights to all classes”; and again, referring to the two leading spirits whose names are associated with the great measure, he adds: “To their temperate zeal for a legal government, England was indebted, during that critical period, for the
two greatest blessings that patriotic statesmen could confer; the establishment of
civil liberty, and the preservation of
Elsewhere the same great constitutional authority speaks of the celebrated 29th chapter, as containing clauses which
protect the personal liberty and property of all freemen, and in further proof of the statement, that no important portion of the people was passed over, he says: “An equal distribution of civil rights, to all classes of freemen, forms the peculiar beauty of the charter.”
Edmund Burke speaks of the charter as having first disarmed the Crown of its
unlimited prerogative, and laid the foundation of
English liberty,*40 and De Lolme characterises it as “the bulwark that protected the
freedom of individuals.” So much, then, for this great epoch in our country’s history. The demand for liberty had been made, and the concession, which followed it, became a valuable
precedent for future monarchs: constituting, as it did, an admission, which could not henceforth be honourably, or even legally gainsaid. That so comprehensive a treaty, extracted from the king, contrary to his real wishes, might not be always fully recognised and acted up to by subsequent monarchs, or even by John himself, was probably anticipated by those who obtained it for themselves and posterity. Indeed, as Sir Erskine May says, “Society was not yet sufficiently advanced to ensure the enjoyment of liberties so extended;” yet, nevertheless, those who had succeeded in winning it from their despotic monarch had the satisfaction and consolation of reflecting that any such disregard on the king’s part to conform to its provisions, would at once become an indefensible transgression of the laws of England.
I pass now to another important epoch in our history—that marked by the “Petition of Right.” It will be seen, from what is to follow, that the same principle of liberty for the individual inspired every movement which led up to its ultimate adoption as a part of our constitution.
When Charles I. succeeded to the throne, “grave issues were pending between prerogative on the one side, and law and parliamentary privilege on the other.”
*41 The most strained relationship existed between the institution of monarchy and the existing parliament, as representing the people of England. But, notwithstanding this feeling, Charles was met by his first parliament in a “passion of loyalty.” One over-sanguine member of the Commons exclaimed: “We can hope everything from the king who now governs us.”Though, therefore, the times were full of trouble everything promised fairly well for the young sovereign, except that some of the cooler heads in the Commons, knowing his character, had serious misgivings as to his future conduct. Green says he had already “revealed
to those around him, a strange mixture of obstinacy and weakness;” a “duplicity which lavished promises, because he never purposed to be bound by any,” and a “petty pride, that subordinated every political consideration to personal vanity, or personal pique.”
No sooner had he taken in his hands the reins of government, than he displayed an impatience to assemble the Commons. His first parliament was accordingly called together in the year 1625. He immediately asked for supplies. At that time the House of Commons was almost entirely governed by a set of men of the most uncommon capacity, and of the largest views, including such as Coke, Seymour, Wentworth, Pym, Hampden, and others—all “animated with a warm regard for liberty,” and “resolved to seize the opportunity which the king’s necessities offered them, of reducing the prerogative within more reasonable compass.”
*43 It was in their opinion necessary to fix a choice; either to “abandon, entirely, the privileges of the people, or to secure them by firmer and more precise barriers than the constitution had hitherto provided for them.”
*44 They, accordingly, “embraced the side of freedom,” and resolved to grant no supplies to their necessitous prince, without extorting concessions “in favour of civil liberty.”
*45 A war was being maintained with France and Spain, which caused a continuous drain upon the king’s funds, and, every day, rendered the necessity for further supplies more urgent. Though it had been long the custom to grant the duties of tonnage and poundage for the king’s life, the parliament declined to do so for more than one year. This somewhat unexpected check upon kingly power greatly astonished Charles. Taught as he was “to consider even the ancient laws and constitution more as lines to direct his conduct, than barriers to withstand his power,
this conspiracy to erect new ramparts, in order to straiten his authority, appeared but one degree removed from open sedition and rebellion.”
The bill, granting one year’s supplies, was thrown out by the Lords, and the parliament, thereupon, granted two subsidies. But this extended vote was only offered conditionally upon the king’s conforming to the wishes of the Commons, upon the subject of modifying the prerogative. The king immediately dissolved parliament, and raised a certain amount of money by Letters under Privy Seal. With the money thus raised he fitted out his fleet, and proceeded to prosecute the Spanish War; but, failing in the attempt to capture a Spanish fleet, the English vessels returned, and the king’s funds were again exhausted. He now summoned a second parliament (1626). The Commons, thus re-assembled, voted a very liberal supply, but deferred its final passing until the king should concede the limitation to the prerogative, which had been previously demanded. The struggle which followed “exceeded in violence any that had yet taken place.”
*47 Acts of reprisal followed one another in quick succession. The Commons denied the right of the king to levy tonnage and poundage
*48 without their consent. The king now threatened the Commons, that if they did not furnish him with supplies, he would be obliged to try ”
new counsels.” “This,” says Hume, “was sufficiently clear.” Lest, however, it should be misunderstood, it was carefully explained by the Vice-Chamberlain. “I pray you consider,” said that functionary, “what these new counsels are or may be. I fear to declare those I conceive. In all Christian kingdoms,” he continued, “you know that parliaments were in use anciently, by which
those kingdoms were governed in a most flourishing manner, until the monarchs began to know their own strength, and, seeing the turbulent spirit of their parliaments, at length they, little by little, began to stand on their prerogatives, and, at last, overthrew the parliaments throughout Christendom, except here only with us. Let us be careful, then,” he concluded, “to preserve the king’s good opinion of parliament, which bringeth such happiness to this nation, and makes us envied of all others, while there is this sweetness between His Majesty and the Commons, lest we lose the repute of a free people by our turbulency in parliament.” “These imprudent suggestions,” says Hume, “rather gave warnings than struck terror. A precarious liberty, the Commons thought, which was to be preserved by unlimited complaisance, was no liberty at all.”
*49 Two prominent members of the Commons were thrown into prison, on false charges of seditious language, and the House was exasperated to “show some degree of precipitancy and indiscretion.”
The House of Lords now roused itself from a condition of inactivity. The king resolved to again dissolve parliament, and the Lords interposed, and desired him to postpone his decision; but the king replied, “Not a moment longer,” and thereupon effected the dissolution. The Commons at once framed a remonstrance, in order to justify their conduct in the eyes of the people. The king, as a counter move, promulgated a vindication of his conduct, in which he gave his reasons for having so suddenly dissolved parliament. Material was thus supplied to the partisans of both sides with which to intensify the dispute. The king now resorted to the
new counsels, which had been threatened. He granted a commission to compound with the Catholics, and to dispense with the penal laws which were enacted against them. This at once supplied him with funds; but
it at once, also, stirred up one of the most dangerous of political influences. He called upon the nobles for contributions, and demanded from the city a loan of one hundred thousand pounds. The nobility unwillingly responded to his demand, but the city, under cover of many excuses, refused to do so. In order to fit out a fleet, each of the maritime towns was called upon to assist in the expenditure. The city of London was rated at twenty ships. “This,” says Hume, “is the first appearance, in Charles’s reign, of ship-money—a taxation which had once been imposed by Elizabeth, but which, afterwards, when carried some steps farther by Charles, created such violent discontents.”
Innumerable methods were now adopted to obtain money from the people, and the most ingenious and insinuating arguments were advanced to justify them. First, a general loan was demanded, as an equivalent for the subsidies which parliament had refused to grant. “No stretch of prerogative so monstrous,” says Sir Erskine May, “had yet been tried.” The public feeling, which had arisen by this time, can be better imagined than described. Throughout the whole country, these so-called loans were refused by many; some, too, encouraged others to resist them, and were, in consequence, thrown into prison. Five English gentlemen displayed the courage of their opinions, by positive refusals, and, in the words of Hume, “had spirit enough, at their own hazard and expense, to defend the public
liberties.” John Hampden was among this number, and, when asked for his reasons for refusal, replied, “that he could be content to lend as well as others, but feared to draw upon himself that curse in Magna Charta, which should be read twice a year against those who infringe it.” The Privy Council thereupon committed him to prison. He was again brought up; again refused to give any other reason; and, again, committed to prison. He and his four companions endeavoured to obtain their release, by the assistance of the
habeas corpus; but, on a technical point, which told in favour of the king, they failed to obtain their freedom. “This judgment,” says Sir Erskine May, “was opposed to the most cherished doctrines of English
*50 Matters went on thus for some time. A foolish war was undertaken against France; soldiers were billeted on the people; crimes of various kinds were punished by martial law; but, withal, the funds which had thus been raised, in various illegal or unconstitutional ways, were found wholly insufficient. Charles now found himself again compelled to call his parliament together. He endeavoured to conciliate the people, by setting free those who had been committed to prison—Hampden among the number. The discontent, which had meanwhile been engendered on every side, justified the apprehension of insurrection, and the assembling of parliament was looked forward to, by the king, with dread. He hoped that the Commons would now be content to forget the past, and be found willing to make reasonable compliances.
These hopes were by no means realised. When parliament did meet, it was as stubborn as ever, on the old points of difference. “No parliament,” says May, “had ever met in England with more just causes of resentment against a king.” He told them, in his first speech, that “If they should not do their duties, in contributing to the necessities of the state, he must, in discharge of his conscience, use those other means which God had put into his hands, in order to save that which the follies of some particular men may otherwise put in danger. Take not this for a threatening,” he said, “for I scorn to threaten any but equals, but as an admonition from him, who, by nature and duty, has most care of your preservation and prosperity.” The Commons saw, by this, that the king was only seeking a further opportunity for dissolving parliament, and it was
further apparent that, should such a step be taken, the results, to all concerned, would be more calamitous than any which had yet happened. Sir Francis Seymour eloquently protested against this transparent attempt to frighten members from their public duty. “He is no good subject,” he said, “who would not, willingly and cheerfully, lay down his life, when that sacrifice may promote the interests of his sovereign, and the good of the commonwealth. But, he is not a good subject—he is a slave—who will allow his goods to be taken from him, against his will and his
liberty, against the laws of the kingdom.”
Sir Robert Phillips, in the same strain, said “I read of a custom among the old Romans, that once every year they held a solemn festival, in which their slaves had liberty, without exception, to speak what they pleased, in order to ease their afflicted minds; and, on the conclusion of the festival, the slaves severally returned to their former servitude. This institution,” he continued, “may well set forth our present state and condition. After the revolution of some time, and the grievous sufferance of many violent oppressions, we have now at last, as those slaves, obtained for a day, some
liberty of speech; but shall not, I trust, be hereafter slaves, for we are
born free… The grievances by which we are oppressed, I draw under two heads: acts of power against law, and the judgments of lawyers against our
liberties. O, unwise forefathers!” he continued, “to be so curious in providing for the quiet possession of our lands and the
liberties of parliament; and, at the same time, to neglect our
personal liberty… If this be law, why do we talk of
These sentiments, Hume says, were unanimously embraced by the whole House. “And the spirit of
liberty,” he continues, “having obtained some contentment by this exertion, the reiterated messages of the king, who pressed for supply, were attended to with more temper.” Five
subsidies were thereupon voted, with which the King was extremely pleased; but the supply was not finally passed into law. They resolved, says Hume, “to employ the interval in providing some barriers to their
rights and liberties, so lately violated.”
They proceeded to draw up the document which was ultimately called the Petition of Right—so called in order to imply that it was a mere “corroboration or explanation of the ancient constitution; not any infringement of royal prerogative, or acquisition of new liberties.” Meanwhile, the subject of the bill was being eagerly debated throughout the kingdom. There were abundant reasons advanced on both sides in parliament, and in the country. The king endeavoured to evade the Petition, and went so far as to write a letter to the Lords, in which he declared that he would never again imprison any man for not lending money, and that he would never “pretend any cause, of whose truth he was not fully satisfied.” This was all of no avail. The Lords endeavoured to append a clause to the Petition, which, while providing for the “preservation of
liberties,” would have had the effect of negativing the whole purpose of the document.
All obstacles of the kind having failed to influence the Commons, the Petition passed through that House, and was sent to the Lords. They quickly passed it, and nothing was left to give it the force of law but the royal assent. The king went to the House of Lords, and sent for the Commons, upon the arrival of whom, the Petition was read to him. Instead of giving utterance to the usual formal words which serve to indicate the royal confirmation or rejection of a measure, he indulged in a comparatively lengthy and equivocal answer, in which he merely expressed his willingness to see the
existing law put in force for the preservation of the “just rights and liberties” of his subjects. The Commons were much displeased at this unusual and
practically negative answer. They returned to their chamber, and proceeded to impeach certain persons, notably Dr. Mainwaring, who had preached a sermon, which had been subsequently printed by royal command, and in which he advocated the “divine right” and other “doctrines subversive of all civil liberty.” “We must vindicate our ancient liberties,” said Sir Thomas Wentworth in the Commons, when they were about to deal in a somewhat similar manner with the Duke of Buckingham—the king’s friend and favourite—as they had done with Mainwaring. The king, however, fearing the trouble which was about to fall on that nobleman, and, in order to divert it, “thought proper, upon a joint application of the Lords and Commons, to endeavour giving them satisfaction with regard to the Petition of Right. He came therefore to the House of Peers, and pronouncing the usual form of words, “Let it be law as desired,” gave full sanction and authority to the Petition.”
“The acclamation,” says Hume, “with which the House resounded, and the universal joy diffused over the nation, showed how much this Petition had been the object of all men’s vows and expectations.”
“It may be affirmed, without any exaggeration,” he continues, “that the king’s assent to the Petition of Right produced such a change in the government, as was almost equivalent to a revolution; and by circumscribing, in so many articles, the royal prerogative, gave
additional security to the liberties of the subject.”
By ratifying that law, the king bound himself never again to impose taxes, or in any way demand money, by loan or otherwise, except by consent of parliament; never again to commit any of his subjects to prison, or otherwise deprive them of their personal liberty, except in due course of law,
duly enacted by the same authority. He undertook also, never again to subject them to the jurisdiction of courtsmartial, as he had previously done, and never to repeat the practice of billeting soldiers upon the people, “all which” the Petition concluded “they (the king’s subjects) humbly pray of your most excellent Majesty as their
rights and liberties, according to the laws and statutes of the realm.”
Macaulay speaks of this great measure as “the second great charter of the
liberties of England.”
The fact that it was violated, almost as soon as granted, though rendering it almost valueless for the time being, could not affect its actual existence, as evidencing a great and memorable victory in the cause of civil liberty; as constituting a great and welcome standard of right, to which future generations could turn in justification of their resistance to royal encroachments, or in vindication of their demands for popular freedom. That it was so ignored and violated is one of the hard facts of history; and that continual encroachments upon the limits which it provided for kingly power, were persisted in, has been rendered ever memorable by the penalty of death which Charles had, ultimately, and in consequence, to suffer. It would be beside my present purpose to follow, further, the somewhat checkered history of this great measure. I have briefly traced it from its earliest immediate causes; and I have shown how it was ultimately placed among the sacred traditions of our race. It witnessed, even after its final adoption, many years and generations of trouble and civil disturbance, before the principles which it involves were unexceptionably acknowledged; and it often served, meanwhile, as the logical battle-ground of many bitter controversies and disputes.
These and many other surrounding events have passed away, but the Petition itself lies preserved in the traditional
archives of our race, and stands out from the pages of England’s statute book in all its stern reality, constituting, like the great charter itself, one of the most valued buttresses of our cherished constitution.
As a measure, it involves the same important principle, which runs, like a thread, through all the great reforms of early English history. The people claimed freedom for the individual, in the disposal of his legally acquired possessions; and ventured to restrain a king even from transgressing that right, except by consent of themselves, and for a constitutional purpose. They were willing to contribute, upon a grant by the parliament, constituted from their duly authorised representatives, but they resented all compulsion, such as was involved in the power of committment and the denial of their “habeas corpus.” It was in truth a determined protest against the then kingly practice of appropriating the legally acquired property of a subject, against his will, by other than constitutional methods—a demand in short for “more liberty.”
Within about half a century of the last mentioned memorable charter, we find the English people engaged in another great struggle for the same ever pressing claims of personal freedom and liberty of citizenship. I refer to the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Macaulay has characterised the enactment of this measure as a “great era in our history.” “From the time of the great charter” he says, “the substantive law, respecting the personal
liberty of Englishmen, had been nearly the same as at present; but it had been inefficacious, for want of a stringent system of procedure. What was needed was not a new right, but a prompt and searching remedy; and such a remedy the Habeas Corpus Act supplied.”
*55 According to Hallam, the origin of this important measure consisted in the “arbitrary proceedings of Lord Clarendon.” That nobleman was actually
impeached, in the reign of Chas. II., for having caused many persons to be imprisoned contrary to law. They were released by the administration of the Duke of Buckingham, which administration, according to Hallam, “acted, in several respects, on a more liberal principle, than any other in that monarch’s reign.” The practice does not, however, seem to have been discontinued. Probably the disregard for the great charter, so far as its provisions in defence of personal liberty were concerned, was present to the minds of the leaders of this movement. It was not indeed a matter to be quickly forgotten that the great Hampden, together with four other knights, had been met by the most technical objections, when seeking their release under the writ, as clearly provided for in Magna Charta. “The fundamental immunity of English subjects had never before been so fully canvassed; and it is to the discussion which arose out of the case of these five gentlemen that we owe its continual assertion and its ultimate establishment, in full practical efficacy, by the statute of Charles II.”
Hallam says it is a very common mistake, and that, not only among foreigners, but with many from whom some knowledge of our constitutional laws might be expected, to suppose that this statute of Charles II. (Habeas Corpus Act)
enlarged in a great degree our liberties, and forms a sort of epoch in our history. Though, he says, a very beneficial enactment, and eminently remedial in many cases of illegal imprisonment, it introduced no new principle, nor conferred any right upon the subject, beyond that which was already contained in Magna Charta. He admits that it “cut off the abuses by which the government’s lust of power, and the servile subtlety of crown lawyers had impaired so fundamental a privilege.”
*57 It is evident that the Habeas Corpus Act, at least made
more certain the provision in
Magna Charta which protected personal liberty. If it did this, then the adoption of the Act must, as Macaulay says, be entitled to be regarded as indeed a “great era in our history.” Under the great charter the provision which was aimed at—guaranteeing personal liberty—was not sufficiently surrounded with safeguards against legal quibbles; as evidenced in the case of Hampden. The Habeas Corpus Act provided those additional safeguards, and, therefore, may be confidently said to have enlarged our liberties, by making them secure where they were formerly insecure. The history of the passing of the measure is as follows: “A bill to ‘prevent the refusal of the writ of habeas corpus’ was introduced into parliament in 1668, but did not pass. A second was passed by the Commons in 1669-70, but was thrown out by the Lords. The Commons then persisted in their efforts for its passage, and, in 1673-4, passed two bills, one to prevent the imprisonment of a subject ‘beyond seas,’ and the other to secure greater expedition in the matter of the writ in criminal matters. These were again rejected by the Lords, and, though they appear to have been persistently repeated, it was not till 1679 that they were passed by that body, consolidated in one act called the ‘Habeas Corpus Act.'” Hallam accounts for this determined opposition to the bill on the ground that “The House of Lords contained, unfortunately, an invincible majority for the court, ready to frustrate any legislative security for public
Green, in his “History of the English People,” says: “To the freedom of the press, the Habeas Corpus Act added a new security for the personal freedom of every Englishman.”
Macaulay says: “It is indeed not wonderful that this great law should be highly prized by all Englishmen, without distinction of party; for it is a law, which, not by
circuitous, but by direct operation, adds to the security and happiness of every inhabitant of the realm.”
Hume says: “The great charter had laid the foundation of this valuable part of
liberty; the Petition of Right had renewed and extended it; but some provisions were still wanting to render it complete and
prevent all evasion or delay from ministers and judges. The Act of Habeas Corpus served these purposes.”
Buckle says: “By the Habeas Corpus Act, the
liberty of every Englishman was made as certain as law could make it, it being guaranteed to him that, if accused of crime, he, instead of languishing in prison, as had often been the case, should be brought to a fair and speedy trial.”
As this is the first of the more important struggles for liberty which took place after party names had been clearly adopted and understood in England, it may be worthy of mention that the measure was passed “during the ascendancy of the Whigs.”
During the two centuries which have elapsed since this memorable act was placed upon the statute book, there have been occasions, upon which it has been claimed to be justifiable, and statesmen who have had the resolution to attempt, to suspend its operation. Charles James Fox, in 1794, when criticising such an attempt said that “the evil they were pretending to remedy was less than the one they were going to inflict by the remedy itself.”
Edmund Burke, in a letter to the sheriffs of Bristol, dated 1777, having reference to certain acts passed with regard to the troubles in America, expressed his grief for one of the results—”legislative regulations which subvert the
liberties of our brethren.” “All the ancient, honest, juridical principles and institutions of England,” he says, “are so many clogs to check and retard the headlong course
of violence and oppression. They were invented for this one good purpose, that what was not just should not be convenient. Convinced of this” he continues, “I would leave things as I found them. The old cool-headed general law is as good as any deviation, dictated by present heat. I could,” he adds, “see no fair justifiable expedience pleaded to favour this new suspension of the
liberty of the subject.”
The Revolution of 1688 marks an epoch in English History, which I cannot afford to omit from this brief and hurried glance at the gradual growth and development of Liberalism.
Notwithstanding the great and memorable struggles for liberty, which had preceded this important event, it remained yet for the seventeenth century to witness a resuscitation of many of the old contentions for civil and religious freedom, as opposed to the constantly recurring claims for monarchical supremacy. One would have thought that history contained, for subsequent monarchs, lessons sufficiently clear and impressive to have convinced them of the hopelessness of attempting to deal with the inhabitants of Great Britain as if they were a people constituted after the type of Eastern subjects, upon whom despotism had ever been practiced without producing irritation or rebellion; and upon whom the blessings of free government might perhaps be bestowed without any pleasurable response. With greater reason might it have been anticipated that the sons of the unfortunate Charles I., who had paid the price of his life for his persistent encroachments upon the public liberty, would have sufficiently deeply realised the great lesson for which that death was partly intended, and have been content to wield, with judgment and moderation, the already large powers which their father’s subjects were only too willing to vest in them as his successors. Unfortunately this was not so. Either those two princes—Charles II.
and James II—had studied their country’s history and their father’s life, with indifference to the great principles which they involved, or must have possessed an amount of vanity which no trouble or calamity could eradicate. It was thus reserved for England to be again plunged into a condition of revolution, in order to re-impress royalty with the fact that the inhabitants of Great Britain were destined, despite all counter influences, to become a free and a self-governing people.
The death of Charles I.—the direct result of the abuse of kingly power—should, and, to men of fair intelligence, must have taught a life-long lesson, regarding the folly of attempting, or even hoping, to stifle in those in whom it had been once found to exist, the deep craving for freedom, and for the liberty of disposal of one’s legally acquired possessions.
That this was not so, may be said to be the main cause for the further social upheaval which was rendered necessary in 1688, and which is known as the second English Revolution.
When Charles II. returned to England in 1660, after his enforced absence abroad, subsequent to the death of his father, he was received by the whole nation with open arms. The joy and enthusiasm with which he was welcomed was almost unprecedented. He was, says Macaulay, “at that time, more loved by the people than any other of his predecessors had ever been. The calamities of his house, the heroic death of his father, his own long-sufferings and romantic adventures, made him an object of tender interest.” He is described, as to character, by the same writer, as possessing “social habits, with polite and engaging manners, and with some talent for lively conversation; but fond of sauntering, and of frivolous amusements; incapable of self denial and of exertion; without desire of renown, and without sensibility to reproach.” Much was expected of him—more, in fact, than those who knew his real character
were justified in anticipating. The great and only feature of his character, with which we are concerned, is that which was involved in the question as to possible future movements in the liberal government of his people. He, as might be supposed, promised that he would rule his subjects according to the laws of the land, and that he would grant liberty of conscience to all his people. These were important as fundamental principles, but, inasmuch as they had been promised by all his predecessors, even by his father, they probably carried little, if any import, to those who were familiar with what had gone before in the history of their country.
Without attempting to go through the reign of this prince in detail, some part of which I have already touched upon in tracing the history of the Habeas Corpus Act, it may be said, generally, that no sooner had he ascended the throne than he began to display the same disregard for promises, which his father had exhibited before him. He entered into a secret alliance with France, and offered to declare himself a Roman Catholic, in order to obtain certain pecuniary aid from Louis XIV., which should render him independent of his own parliament; he acquiesced in, and, by doing so, encouraged a gross breach of public faith in order to raise money, by repudiating banking debts to the extent of thirteen hundred thousand pounds; during his reign “proclamations, dispensing with acts of parliament, or enjoining what only parliament could enjoin, appeared in rapid succession.”
He brought to his aid five corrupt statesmen, known collectively by the name of “the Cabal,” by whose influence in the House of Commons many disgraceful acts were perpetrated. Religious persecution was carried to a high pitch of cruelty; the old penal laws of Elizabeth were revived, under the infamous judicial administration of the notorious
Jeffreys; and, generally, the conduct of the King was about as bad as could be well imagined. His whole reign was, in truth, a continuous attack upon public liberty. It was ignored in every direction—freedom of opinion in matters of religion; freedom of the citizen to do as he wished with his own possessions, except such only as parliament, in its constitutional right, required for lawful purposes; freedom of the individual, subject only to the verdict of his peers, but uninfluenced by a corrupt and blood-thirsty judge: at the beck and call of the monarch; freedom of citizens, grouped as juries, to form their own verdict: undeterred and uncoerced by a corrupt judge, with regal influence at his back; lastly, freedom of citizenship for each to live as he may think fit, limited only by the constitutionally-made and justly administered laws of one’s country. In all these particulars Charles II. trampled upon the rights and liberties of his subjects, and, by so doing, contributed largely towards the oppression and consequent anger of the English people, which was continued and aggravated by his brother James, and culminated in his expulsion from the throne of England.
Charles II. died in 1685, and was succeeded by James II. With the accession of this prince, good and peaceful times were again hoped for. When he appeared before the Privy Councillors, after the death of his brother Charles, he, in the course of a speech, repudiated the reputation which he had already acquired in anticipation—that of possessing an arbitrary character. He announced his intention of maintaining the established government in church and state, and, without relinquishing any of his own rights, expressed his intention of going as far as any man in support of his country’s liberties. One reads with feelings of irony that “The members of the Council broke forth into clamours of delight and gratitude.”
*66 He began, within a few hours of becoming king, by issuing a proclamation to collect duties
which had not yet been constitutionally voted to him. As soon as parliament assembled, he addressed to the Commons a speech, in which he admonished them not to suppose that by doling out supplies they would cause him to call them frequently together; and he warned them to use him well, if they wanted to meet often. He further insulted his own subjects, by apologising to Louis XIV. for having called the English parliament together without that monarch’s consent. He begged for a French subsidy, and sent an embassy to Versailles with assurances of submission, though the Commons and the Scotch Parliament had just granted a handsome vote. His motive, in obtaining money from Louis, was that he might be independent of his parliament. He sanctioned the most cruel religious persecution, and acquiesced in the inhuman maladministration of the law by the notorious Jeffreys. He used every available means to restore Roman catholicism in its most despotic form; and, with equal zeal, endeavoured to destroy the established church. He grossly abused his prerogative, by the creation of an unconstitutional tribunal known as the High Commission. He issued special commissions to enable him to effect objects which the ordinary law could not reach, and endeavoured to overturn the constitutional parliament of his country, by the creation of a new and illegally constituted assembly of privy councillors. He contemplated obtaining a “repeal of the Habeas Corpus Act, which he hated, as it was natural that a tyrant should hate, the most stringent curb that ever legislation imposed on tyranny.”
It now became obvious to all classes of his subjects, that James was, as a monarch, absolutely indifferent to his obligations, whether expressed or implied. He had violated the constitution; ignored or over-ridden acts of parliament: used every effort to destroy the established church and to restore a religion, against which the nation had rigidly
legislated; endeavoured to subvert one of England’s most cherished guarantees for personal liberty, and prevented the constitutional parliament of the country from assembling. All classes joined in unqualified condemnation of his conduct, and a powerful conspiracy was initiated for the purpose of dethroning him. The Prince of Orange was made familiar with these designs, and he agreed to invade England. James II. at first treated this rumour with scorn, but, as he commenced to realise more and more its truth and reality, he began to offer concessions to the people. The Prince of Orange landed in England, and though, at first, there were signs that a conflict would take place between his forces and those of James II., a short time sufficed to cause all the supporters of the latter to abandon him, and he was compelled to fly the kingdom, fearful, doubtless, that he would, if arrested, share the fate of his unfortunate father.
Before all this was accomplished, and, while the invasion of William was yet in preparation, that prince had subscribed to the celebrated document, known as “The Declaration of Right.” This Declaration was “a recital of certain established laws which had been violated by the Stuarts, and a solemn protest against the validity of any precedent which might be set up in opposition to those laws.”
The words run thus: “They do claim, demand, and insist upon all and singular the premises, as their undoubted ”
rights and liberties.”
*68 The Declaration was, in fact, a sort of consolidation of the principle enactments which had been in dispute, from time to time, between the people and the crown. It began with a solemn preamble, setting forth the necessity for the strict observance of the law, as contributing to the happiness of nations and the security of governments. It recited the violation of the constitution; the usurpation of power by the monarch in dispensing with Acts of Parliament; the necessity for maintaining the
established religion; the necessity for strictly regarding “the great charter of the liberties of England;” the advantages of a free and lawful parliament; and this it stated to be his (William’s) chief object. It was not till this Declaration was circulated in Holland that James II. clearly realised his position. The numerous concessions which he had offered had not been well received. He had fled the country, and, after much deliberation, the throne was declared vacant, upon the ground “that James had broken the fundamental laws of the kingdom.” William and Mary were then crowned as King and Queen of England.
The coronation, which I cannot here dwell upon, was performed amid great ceremony, and William gave the most profound assurances of his intention to promote the welfare of the kingdom. The rejoicings were loud and universal. Thus was consummated the English Revolution.
Let us consider for a moment, what it effected. In order to do so it is necessary to turn to the Declaration of Right itself, for Edmund Burke says: “If the principles of the Revolution of 1688 are anywhere to found, it is in the statute called the Declaration of Right.”
*69 And Hallam says: “The Declaration was indissolubly connected with the Revolution settlement, as its motive and its condition.”
*70 The Declaration consists of three parts, viz., a recital of the illegal and arbitrary acts of James, and of the consequent vote of abdication; a declaration that such enumerated acts are illegal; and a resolution that the throne shall, subject to certain limitations, be filled by the Prince and Princess of Orange.
The Lords and Commons, in this important instrument, declared, among other things, that the pretended power of suspending laws and the execution of laws by regal authority, without consent of parliament, was illegal; that the pretended power of dispensing with laws by regal authority,
“as it hath been assumed and exercised of late,” was illegal; that the levying of money for or to the use of the Crown, by pretence of prerogative, without grant of parliament, for longer time, or in any other manner than the same is or shall be granted, was illegal; that election of members of parliament ought to be
free; that the
freedom of speech, or of debates, or of proceedings in parliament, ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament.
The Declaration was, some months afterwards, confirmed by a regular act of the legislature, in the Bill of Rights, which (with the addition of one clause), was a copy of the Declaration. The Declaration of Right is called “An act for declaring the
rights and liberties of the subject, and for settling the succession of the crown,” and the whole care of the two Houses was “to secure the religion, laws, and liberties, that had been long possessed, and had been lately endangered.”
The two houses “taking into their most serious consideration the best means for making such an establishment, that their religion, laws, and
liberties, might not be in danger of being again subverted, auspicate all their proceedings by stating, as some of those best means, in the first place to do as their ancestors in like cases have usually done, for vindicating their ancient
rights and liberties, to declare—and then they pray the King and Queen that it may be
declared and enacted that all and singular the
rights and liberties, asserted and declared, are the true ancient and indubitable rights and liberties of the people of this kingdom.”
*73 All historians, and other writers of note, concur in characterising this epoch in history, as one of the
very first importance among those which touch the question of our civil and religious liberties.
Guizot, the French historian, in his “History of civilisation in Europe,” speaking of the end of the sixteenth century, says: “There were, then, two national wants in England at this period; on one side was the need of religious revolution and
liberty, in the heart of the reformation already commenced; and on the other, was required political
liberty, in the heart of the pure monarchy then in progress; and, in the course of their progress, these two wants were able to invoke all that had already been done in either direction. They combined. The party who wished to pursue religious reformation invoked political
liberty to the assistance of its faith and conscience, against the king and the bishops. The friends of political
liberty again sought the aid of the popular reformation. The two parties united to struggle against absolute power in the temporal, and in the spiritual orders—a power now concentrated in the hands of the king. This” he says, “is the origin and purport of the English Revolution.”
“It was thus,” he continues, “essentially devoted to the defence or achievement of
liberty. For the religious party it was a means, and for the political party an end; but
with both liberty was the question.“
Again the same writer says: “Taking everything together, the English Revolution was essentially political; it was brought about in the midst of a religious people, and in a religious age; religious thoughts and passions were its instruments; but its
chief design and definite aim were political; were devoted to liberty, and the
abolition of all absolute power.”
Hallam says: “It” (the House of Stuart) “made the co-existence of an hereditary line, claiming a sovereign prerogative, paramount to the
liberties they had vouchsafed
to concede, incompatible with the security or probable duration of those
liberties. This incompatibility is the true basis of the Revolution of 1688.”
Elsewhere the same writer says: “The glorious Revolution stands in no need of vulgar credulity, no mistaken prejudice, for its support. It can only rest on the basis of a liberal theory of government, which looks to the public good as the great end for which positive laws, and the constitutional order of states have been instituted.”
*76 And again, “I consider the Revolution to have been eminently conducive to our
freedom and prosperity.”
*77 “It was the triumph of those principles, which, in the language of the present day, are denominated
liberal, or, constitutional.”
Macaulay, in his essay on Milton, speaks of the Revolution as “the expulsion of a tyrant, the solemn recognition of popular rights, liberty, security, toleration.” And Burke says: “The revolution was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government, which is
our only security for law and liberty.”
Burke, again, in a proposed address to George III., on the American War, written nearly a century after this great epoch, so eloquently and comprehensively summarises its aim and effect, that I shall venture to again quote his words. “The revolution,” he says, “is a departure from the ancient course of the descent of this monarchy. The people, at that time, re-entered into their original rights; and it was not because a positive law authorised what was then done, but because the freedom and safety of the subject, the origin and cause of all laws, required a proceeding paramount and superior to them. At that evermemorable and instructive period, the letter of the law was superceded in favour of the substance of liberty. To the
free choice, therefore, of the people, without either king or parliament, we owe that happy establishment, out of which both king and parliament were regenerated. From that great principle of liberty have originated the statutes, confirming and ratifying the establishment from which your Majesty derives your right to rule over us. Those statutes have not given us our liberties; our liberties have produced them.”
I need scarcely say that the Whigs took a very prominent part in this great event of our history. The fact that the bulk of the Tories, also, assisted in the struggle, does not affect my contention, viz., that in every such movement for the preservation of civil liberty, all friends of truly Liberal principles were to be found among the front ranks, when the time for action had come. “The two parties,” says Macaulay, “whose strife had convulsed the empire during half a century, were united for a moment; and all that vast royal power, which, three years before, had seemed immovably fixed, vanished at once, like chaff before a hurricane.”
I pass now to another and still later epoch in the history of my subject—that which is marked by the struggle for, and acquirement of independence, by the American colonies, now known as the United States. This struggle involved that important branch of civil liberty which is comprehended in the question of national taxation. It will be seen, from the following short sketch, that the right of a monarch or his government to impose taxation is, for obvious reasons, watched always with the utmost jealousy; and that one of the most sensitive characteristics of a liberty-loving people is touched, the moment an attempt is made to trespass beyond the most strictly legitimate limits of a State’s true functions in that direction.
The settlement of the American colonies, which, as Hume says, were “established on the noblest footing that
had been known in any age or nation” had taken place in the reign of James I. In them “the spirit of independency, which was reviving in England, shone forth in its full lustre, and received new accession from the aspiring character of those who, being discontented with the established church and monarchy, had sought for freedom in those savage deserts.”
There can be no doubt that those early settlers, who sailed for the American continent to found a new home and a new country for themselves, carried with them all the liberty-loving traditions of the race from which they sprang. The memory of the great historic struggles, which stood as landmarks in their country’s history, had, in all probability, left a deep impression upon the leading spirits of that enterprising and now historic expedition.
Edmund Burke, in his celebrated speech upon “Conciliation with America,” which he delivered in 1775, said:—”The people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. England, sir, is a nation which, still I hope, respects and formerly adored her
freedom. The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are, therefore, not only devoted to
liberty, but to liberty, according to English ideas, and on English principles.” Again, in the course of the same utterance, he said: “This fierce spirit of
liberty is stronger in the English colonies, probably, than in any other people of the earth.”
The American colonies, thus formed, had, almost all, after several struggles, succeeded in securing for themselves a form of government which fostered these feelings, rather than allowed them to fade from the memory. “The
executive power was vested in a governor appointed by the king. He was assisted by a council, which sometimes conjoined the functions of a Privy Council and a House of Peers. The people were represented by a House of Assembly, consisting of persons chosen by the freeholders in the country parts, and the householders or corporations of towns. The governor could levy no money without the consent of the House of Assembly. The British parliament, however, claimed, but scarcely ever exercised, the privilege of imposing taxes upon the colonists, without consulting them.
*84 This claim, however, was by no means admitted, but, in fact, was regarded rather as an encroachment on the rights and privileges of the colonists. The taxes which were collected in the colonies at the time with which I am dealing, were not large, and the expenditure of them was confined to the local wants. The political condition of the colonies was of the freest character, and they were also in a state of great prosperity. It was this prosperity indeed, added to the growing indebtedness of England, which prompted the British government to impose taxes upon the American colonies. Sir Robert Walpole had been sounded, and had refused to act on the suggestion, but Mr. Grenville, less able to foresee the ultimate effect of his act, and thinking to lighten the monetary burdens which continuous wars had entailed on the mother country, projected the celebrated Stamp Duties as a precedent. The tax was in itself, small, but there was a principle involved in it which the colonists immediately detected and regarded as dangerous to their future civil liberty; they therefore offered to it the most strenuous objection.
Grenville’s contention was that inasmuch as the colonists received protection from the English government, they were bound to contribute toward the revenue, out of which that protection was defrayed. In the words of Green, “As the
burden had been partly incurred in the defence of the American colonies, Grenville resolved that the colonies should bear their share of it. The colonists, on the contrary, contended that ‘taxation and representation should go hand in hand’; and, as America had no representatives in the British parliament, they declined to be taxed without their consent. The question was one purely of principle, for the representatives of the colonists, in their local parliaments, were willing to vote moneys of a much larger amount than that which had been demanded by the Home government. But they protested against its being levied on them by the English legislature, in which they had no voice. They therefore deputed the famous Benjamin Franklin to proceed to London, and there protest against the proposed taxation. This determined stand rendered Grenville more resolved than ever to have his own way. The first colony to take up this firm attitude of protest was Virginia. Among those in England, who took up the colonists cause, was the elder Pitt, afterwards Lord Chatham, who said: “In my opinion, this kingdom has no right to lay a tax on the colonies…. America is obstinate! America is almost in open rebellion! Sir, I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people,” he added, “so dead to all the feelings of
liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.”
The opposition of the colonists took many forms—including resolutions, petitions, and various other publications. At a certain point of this growing resistance, the then existing ministry displayed great vacillation, and, in a very short time, the celebrated Stamp Act, which had been the source of all the discontent and excitement among the colonists, was repealed; but, unfortunately, the matter was not allowed to end here. It was necessary, in the opinion of those who were charged with the carrying on of Her
Majesty’s government, to offer some consolation to the pride of the English people, and probably to themselves also; and with this view, an act was passed, which simply declared
the right of the mother country “to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever.” The determination to impose taxes upon the colonies was, however, by no means abandoned, but it was thought advisable to try some other means of securing the end in view. Import duties were imposed, at the colonial ports, on several articles of merchandise, including tea, but no sooner was the step made known than the indignation of the colonists became more intense than ever. It was at this stage that Edmund Burke made his celebrated speech upon the subject of “Conciliation with America,” to which I have already referred, and, in which he commented with so much force and eloquence upon the “love of freedom,” and the “fierce spirit of liberty” which was so strongly marked in the colonists, with whom England was, every day, being placed more and more at issue. “On this point of taxes,” he said, “the ablest pens and the most eloquent tongues have been exercised… They (the English) took infinite pains to inculcate as a fundamental principle, that in all monarchies the people must, in effect, themselves, mediately or immediately, possess the power of granting their own money, or no shadow of
liberty could subsist. The colonies draw from you,” he said, “their life-blood, these ideas and principles. Their love of
liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing. Liberty might be safe or might be endangered in twenty other particulars, without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse, and as they found that beat, they fret themselves sick or sound.”
A new administration now came into existence under Lord North, and, almost immediately, the whole of the objectionable duties were repealed, with one exception—
that upon tea—which was retained in order to assert the principle of England’s
right to impose taxes on her colonies. In addition to the retention of this duty, a series of remarkable innovations were introduced. Here again, Edmund Burke’s voice was heard, in all its force and eloquence, in criticising the weakness and vacillation of English policy. “Your act of 1767,” he said, “asserts that it is expedient to raise a revenue in America; your act of 1769, which takes away that revenue, contradicts the act of 1767.”
*87 And then he added, in touching the vital principle which this struggle involved: “Could anything be a subject of more just alarm to America than to see you go out of the plain high road of finance, and give up your most certain revenues, and your clearest interests, merely for the sake of insulting your colonies…. The feelings of the colonies were formerly the feelings of Great Britain. Their’s were formerly the feelings of Mr. Hampden, when called upon for the payment of twenty shillings. Would twenty shillings have ruined Mr. Hampden’s fortune? No! but the payment of half twenty shillings, on the principle it was demanded, would have made him a slave.”
*88 The principle contained in this argument had already been attempted to be answered by Lord Carmarthen, who had contended that the Americans were England’s children, and that, therefore, they could not revolt against their parent. “If they are not free in their present state,” then, he urged, “England is not free; because Manchester and other considerable places are not represented.”
*89 Burke was ready with a complete answer to such an argument, and, like all his reasoning, it contained a principle of importance. “So then,” he said, “because some towns in England are not represented, America is to have no representative at all.
They are our ‘children,’ but when children ask for bread, we are not to give them a stone. Is it because the natural resistance of things, and the various mutations of time hinder our government, or any scheme of government, from being any more than a sort of approximation to the right; is it therefore that the colonies are to recede from it infinitely? When this child of ours wishes to assimilate to its parent, and to reflect, with a true filial resemblance, the beauteous countenance of British
liberty; are we to turn to it the shameful parts of our constitution? Are we to give them our weakness for their strength; our opprobrium for their glory? and the slough of slavery, which we are not able to work off, to serve them for their freedom? If this be the case, ask yourselves this question: Will they be content in such a state of slavery? If not, look to the consequences. Reflect how you are to govern a people, who think they ought to be
free, and think they are not. Your scheme yields no revenue; it yields nothing but discontent, disorder, disobedience; and such is the state of America, that, after wading up to your eyes in blood, you could only end just where you began; that is, to tax where no revenue is to be found.”
Burke’s eloquence and reasoning were unavailing. The King (George III.) had determined to seize the first opportunity to rescind the “fatal compliance of 1766.” Some unimportant riots had marked the rising indignation of the colonists, and the occasion was at once grasped, as a reason for steps of a most rigorous character.
A petition from the Legislative Assembly of Massachusetts, praying the dismissal of certain public officers located in the colonies, who had advised the Home authorities to deprive the colonies of their free institutions, was rejected as “frivolous and vexatious” by an act of the Commons. The port of Boston was closed against all commerce; the
State of Massachusetts was deprived of the liberties which it had enjoyed since the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers; it was made what we now term a Crown colony; the appointment of its judges was transferred from the people to the governor; and the latter was empowered to send to England, to take their trial, all persons charged with having taken part in the disturbances which had already occurred. A strong military force was established under the commandership of a general, who, at the same time, became governor of Massachusetts. The King was jubilant at the prospects, and wrote to his minister: “The die is cast; the colonies must either triumph or submit.” The colonists, meanwhile, were preparing for resistance. They determined to refuse all commercial negotiations with the mother country; and preparations for war were set on foot in every direction. Legal proceedings were suspended; jurors declined the oath; and, on every side, were apparent symptoms of social disorganisation. The whole of the colonies, between whom there had existed, in times of peace, various local jealousies, now co-operated in one common cause—the defence of their liberties. Thus, in a short time, were both countries plunged into a war of the most painful character, inasmuch as the combatants were practically fellow-countrymen. In Burke’s speech on “Conciliation,” delivered in March, 1775, are collected some interesting figures showing the population and extent of the trade of the colonies shortly before the war. He estimates the former at “two millions of inhabitants of our own European blood and colour, besides at least 500,000 others, probably slaves.” The exports to the colonies constituted half of the whole export trade of England—that is to say, six millions out of twelve. The war began in 1775, and lasted till 1783, when the British troops evacuated New York, and the American army was disbanded. It was on July 4th, 1776, about a year after the war began, that the
American Congress published its celebrated Declaration of Independence. It begins with the following words: “We, the representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, solemnly publish and declare that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be
independent States.” Thus may be said to have commenced the history of the United States of America, and to have been attained one of the most signal victories for true Liberalism which the new world has yet witnessed.
Among the many reflections, which a study of this great struggle must produce in the mind of every student of history, is that which points to the attitude of George III., and his assumption of the old kingly powers, which had led to so much trouble with his predecessors. This was probably the chief cause of the struggle. “His wish was not to govern against law, but simply to govern: to be freed from the dictation of parties and ministers; to be, in effect, the first minister of the state.”
*91 “In ten years,” says the same writer, “he reduced government to a shadow, and turned the loyalty of his subjects into disaffection. In twenty he had forced the colonies of America into revolt and independence, and brought England to the brink of ruin.”
*92 He spoke of the colonists, at an early stage of the quarrel, as “rebels,” and characterised the elder Pitt (who had protested against the whole policy of the Home government) as a “trumpet of sedition.” The speeches and writings of Edmund Burke are replete with philosophic observations upon this great struggle, which will be found deeply interesting to all who can give more attention to it than is demanded here. In a proposed address to the king which was evidently written while the struggle with the colonies was at an early stage, he said, “It will be
impossible long to resist the powerful and equitable arguments in favour of the freedom of these unhappy people, that are to be drawn from the principle of our own
liberty;” and, in an “Address to the British colonists in North America,” he says, even more powerfully: “We view the establishment of the English colonies on principles of
liberty, as that which is to render this kingdom venerable to future ages. In comparison of this, we regard all the victories and conquests of our warlike ancestors, or of our own times as barbarous, vulgar distinctions, in which many nations, whom we look upon with little respect or value, have equalled, if not far exceeded us. This is the peculiar and appropriated glory of England. Those who
have, and who hold to that foundation of
common liberty, whether on this, or on your side of the ocean, we consider as the true, and the only true Englishmen. Those who depart from it, whether there or here, are attainted, corrupted in blood, and wholly fallen from their original rank and value. They are the real rebels to the fair constitution and just supremacy of England.”
Let me conclude my hasty sketch of this particular epoch by a quotation from Sir Erskine May. “When the Great Republic,” he says, “was fully established as an independent state, it afforded an example of
freedom and equality unknown in the previous history of the world.”
The last event with which we are concerned in this chapter, is that which is shortly and generally summarised under the heading of “Catholic Emancipation.” I shall endeavour to show that, just as all the previous movements, with which I have already dealt, have been inspired by the strong love among men for personal liberty, and the equally strong desire for freedom in the disposal (as best conforms to each individual’s wishes) of such property as society recognises as one’s own; so, in the event, with which I am
now about to deal, there is evident the struggle to obtain recognition of an analogous, and, at the same time equally vital principle to society—the liberty of action in the matter of worship, and the liberty of conscience in the choice of a creed. To trace, with any degree of detail, the origin of the issue, which was ultimately settled in the movement known as Catholic Emancipation, would indeed involve more space than I have here at my disposal. I shall, therefore, touch upon the various stages of the movement in general terms only, taking care to make as distinct as possible, those particular points which turn on the principle underlying the struggle.
It has been considered by historians that the depressed and degraded condition which characterised the people of Europe during the fifteenth century, is attributable to the papal as much as to the feudal despotism of those times. The papal power which was wielded during that period was, indeed, not confined to matters of a spiritual nature, but it obtruded itself into almost all such as can fairly be comprehended under the term “temporal.” It, in fact, claimed, and, for the most part, exercised a jurisdiction over all human relations, whether spiritual, political, social, or intellectual.
The Church was then, in truth, the depositary of almost all learning and intellectual superiority; and, as a consequence, in such times, it acquired an influence, in the various courts of Europe, which made it practically the supreme authority among all civilised peoples.
This great power, as might have been predicted, led to many and great abuses. What was originally intended as a means towards the elevation of the human race, became an end in itself—the original object being in time lost sight of. Worship degenerated into idolatry; ritual and ceremony became nothing more than extravagant and meaningless pomp; faith and reliance in a supreme power were allowed
to drift into superstition and ignorant credulity. Inquiry was stifled by persecution, and intellectual doubt, as soon as discovered, visited with tyranny and cruelty of the most revolting character.
Martin Luther carried in his mind the great intellectual lever by which this old and rotten edifice was to be shaken and ultimately thrown down. The Reformation, of which he was the pioneer and leading spirit, may be said to have begun with the sixteenth century; and its influence swept over England as well as the other countries of Europe. The Church of England did not acquire independence till 1535, and may be considered the first step of that great movement in England. During the reign of Henry VIII., the influence of Rome was boldy resisted. That monarch, under cover of other motives, resolved to enrich himself, and, at the same time, to abolish corruption, by suppressing the monasteries within his realm. By an act of parliament of his reign, 380 of those institutions fell into his hands, enriching him to the extent of thirty-two thousand pounds a year—an immense sum in those days. The spoils were largely distributed among his own favourites. Serious riots followed. In 1539, the king decreed the suppression of
all monasteries; and church property of all kinds, including land, buildings, and gold and silver relics of great value, were seized and confiscated. The king renounced the papal supremacy, and the religion of the English people was thenceforth changed.
Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, endeavoured to complete the Reformation. He further removed Roman abuses and established the Evangelical creed; circulated the Bible among the people, and altered the service and ritual of the national church.
With the reign of Mary, however, a reaction set in. Protestantism had again to give way to the church of Rome. Many bishops of that church, who had been deposed by
Henry, were reinstated: and the queen acknowledged her allegiance to the pope. Then followed persecution, in all its worst and most revolting forms. The prisons were filled, and the terrible fires of Smithfield were called into constant requisition. Two hundred and eighty-eight persons, including bishops, clergymen, women and children, were burned at the stake; and many thousand of others suffered different forms of persecution. Then it was that Latimer, Ridley, Hooper, and the great Cranmer sacrificed their lives for their creed.
With the accession of Elizabeth, in 1558, the protestant religion was again restored: the re-establishment being effected upon the basis laid down by Cranmer and his followers. During that reign every catholic priest was branded as a traitor, and all catholic worship as disloyalty.
In the reign of Charles I., “the persecution of the catholics, which had long been suspended, out of deference to Spanish intervention, recommenced with vigour,”
*96 but, subsequently, that wayward monarch, for various reasons, became much more tolerant. Even as late as the protectorship of Cromwell, when “liberty of
worship was secured for all,” an exception was made in the case of Papists. “Liberty of
conscience,” however, was secured for every citizen.
*97 William of Orange, after the battle of the Boyne in 1690, entered into the Treaty of Limerick, by which he guaranteed religious toleration to his Irish catholic subjects. He undertook to bind his heirs and successors; but the treaty was afterwards disregarded, and twenty years or so later, was completed the celebrated catholic penal code, consisting of several acts of the legislature, passed at different times, in and about that period.
“A statute was fabricated,” says Burke, “in the year 1699, by which the saying mass was forged into a crime,
punishable with perpetual imprisonment. The teaching school… even in a private family was, in every catholic, subjected to the same punishment…. Every Roman catholic was to forfeit his estate to his nearest protestant relation, until he redeemed by his hypocrisy, what the law had transferred to his kinsman as the recompense of his profligacy. When thus turned out of doors from his paternal estate, he was disabled from acquiring any other, by his industry, donation, or charity, but was rendered a foreigner in his native land, only because he retained the religion along with his property, handed down to him from those who had been the old inhabitants of that land before him. Does any one who hears me,” added Burke, “approve this scheme of things, or think there is common justice, common sense, or common honesty in any part of it?”
The Penal code, shortly summarised, provided as follows:—No papist could take real estate by descent or purchase. A conveyance to a papist was void. A protestant who turned papist was guilty of high treason. A papist father was, under penalty of five hundred pounds, debarred from being guardian to papist children. A papist was prohibited from marrying a protestant, and the priest, who celebrated such a marriage, was guilty of felony. Papists were prevented from becoming barristers; from teaching in schools; from saying or hearing mass; from holding office, civil or military; from sitting in parliament, or voting at an election.
Popish recusants—that is, persons who did not attend the established church—could not hold office, keep arms, come within ten miles of London, or travel five miles from their own home, except upon license obtained for the purpose. They were debarred the right of maintaining an action at law, or in equity. Any one baptising, marrying, or burying such a person was liable to heavy penalties. A woman of that class, who married, forfeited two-thirds of her dower or
jointure, and, during marriage, she could, at any time, be imprisoned, unless her husband redeemed her at the rate of ten pounds per month. All other recusant females were compelled to renounce popery or quit the realm—otherwise they could be put to death. In addition, papists were excluded from grand juries; and many other liberties, too numerous to mention here, but all of which were enjoyed by protestant subjects, were denied to those who professed the creed of Rome. “It was,” said Burke, “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, noted for its vicious perfection, and as admirably fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” The same writer, in his tracts on the popery laws, written about 1780, says that they affected two-thirds of the whole nation, numbering 2,800,000 souls. Such was the condition of things as affecting catholics previous to 1779.
In 1779, and again a few years afterwards, the harshness of this code was considerably ameliorated. The elective franchise was extended to catholics, but they were still excluded from parliament. To secure these slight privileges, however, rigid oaths and declarations had to be submitted to, and even then it was maintained an offence to worship according to the Roman catholic ritual.
Burke, in a “Letter to a Peer of Ireland,” upon the subject of these laws, written just previously to the amelioration of which I have spoken, speaks of them, to that nobleman, as “a code of statutes, by which you are totally excluded from the privileges of the commonwealth, from the highest to the lowest—from the most material of the civil professions, from the army, and even from education.”
*99 The bill of 1782, which effected this amelioration referred to, re-affirmed many of the old acts; and this revival led Burke to say of
the measure by which that was effected: “To look at the bill in the abstract, it is neither more nor less than a renewed act of
universal, unmitigated, indispensable, exceptionless DISQUALIFICATION.” “One would imagine,” he continues, “that a bill, inflicting such a multitude of incapacities, had followed on the heels of a conquest made by a very fierce enemy, under the impression of recent animosity and resentment.”
*100 In 1801, when Pitt was concerned with the great question of conciliation with Ireland, he conceived the question of religious equality to be one of the most powerful means towards that end. “In proposing to the English parliament the union of the two countries, he had pointed out that when thus joined to a protestant country like England, all danger of a catholic supremacy in Ireland—should catholic disabilities be removed—would be practically at an end.”
*101 The hope, which was thus held out to the catholics, prevented opposition to the bill which brought about the legislative union, though it is acknowledged that the catholic influence could have secured its defeat. “After the passing of the bill, Pitt prepared to lay before the cabinet a measure, which would have raised, not only the catholic, but the dissenter also to
perfect equality of civil rights. He proposed to remove all religious tests which limited the exercise of the franchise, or were required for admission to parliament, the magistracy, the bar, municipal offices, or posts in the army or the service of the state.”
*102 George III., whose unjustifiable assumption of historical prerogatives I have already instanced, in dealing with the subject of American independence, here also obstructed the passage of a most genuine piece of Liberal legislation. Having heard of Pitt’s intention to submit such a scheme to his cabinet, that monarch said: “I count any man my personal enemy, who proposes any such measure.” Pitt,
thereupon, laid his whole plan before the king; submitting that “the political circumstances under which the exclusive laws originated, arising, either from the conflicting power of hostile and nearly balanced sects; from the apprehension of a popish queen as successor; a disputed succession and a foreign pretender; a division in Europe between catholic and protestant powers, are no longer applicable to the present state of things.” The king was obdurate, giving as a reason, that he held himself bound by his coronation oath to maintain the tests.
*103 Pitt, equally firm in his resolution, resigned.
In 1823, the Irish Liberal party being united, “they closed hands in defence of their common liberties.” O’Connel and Shiel, long estranged, met, and became reconciled. Out of that meeting a league was formed under the title of the “Catholic Association.”
It became in a short time a great political power. The greatest orators which Ireland could produce were enlisted in the cause, and parliament immediately became the recipient of numerous and powerful petitions. Tracts and circulars, bearing upon the questions which inspired its members, were widely distributed; and, in many other ways, not always to be commended, its influence was felt over the whole political field of its time. So great was its power, that parliament, in 1825, passed an act terminating its existence; but, almost immediately afterwards, it was reorganised. The general election of 1826 was the next battle ground; and the growing feeling was prominently represented in the result. The term “emancipation” was then used to designate the element of liberty.
From this time forward the agitation continued. In 1828 O’Connell was induced to become a candidate for a seat in the House of Commons. His address ran as follows:—”Fellow countrymen: your country wants a representative. I respect
fully solicit your suffrages to raise me to that station…. You will be told I am not qualified to be elected, and to be your representative. It is true that, as a catholic, I cannot, and of course never will, take the oaths at present prescribed to members of parliament. But the authority which created those oaths can abrogate them; and I entertain a confident hope that, if you elect me, the most bigoted of our enemies will see the necessity of removing, from the chosen representative of the people, an obstacle which would prevent him from doing his duty to his king and to his country.” O’Connell was duly elected. The Duke of Wellington was at the head of the government, and, at once, saw that the matter must be dealt with. Parliament was convened on March 5th, 1829, and, immediately, Mr. Peel moved that the House go into committee, “to take into consideration the civil disabilities of his Majesty’s Roman catholic subjects.” Two days’ debate followed. A bill was introduced, and, notwithstanding the presentation of a thousand petitions, intended to defeat its progress, the bill was passed by the Commons and the Lords, though by the latter after a great struggle. On April 13th, it received the royal assent. “It was hailed with joy by the friends of religious freedom in England, as well as in Ireland.”
*104 O’Connell, having been elected before the passage of the act, was refused admission to the House of Commons; and his seat was, after much debate, declared vacant. He returned to Ireland, and was returned unopposed, having acquired the title of “the Liberator of his country.” In order to justify my inclusion of this epoch, among others, as one of the great “struggles for liberty,” and therefore, as an instance of the true Liberalism in politics, I feel bound to quote the following additional passage from Edmund Burke, contained in a letter to his son, on the subject of the popery laws. It indicates his
view of those laws in such a way as to show how he would have regarded their repeal. “A liberty made up of penalties! A liberty made up of incapacities! A liberty made up of exclusion and proscription—continued for ages—of four-fifths, perhaps, of the inhabitants of all ranks and fortunes! In what does such liberty differ from the description of the most shocking kind of servitude?”
*105 Sir Erskine May says, speaking of this cause: “It was supported by eminent English statesmen, and by the liberal judgment of an enlightened party in parliament, and in the country.”
*106 Thus, then, was ended this great and memorable struggle known as “Catholic Emancipation,” and thus concludes my sketch of what I have termed “Historic Liberalism.” I may say of the several movements with which I have thus dealt—to use the words of Macaulay, “the Charter of Henry Beauclerc, the Great Charter, the Extinction of Personal Slavery, the Separation from the See of Rome, the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Revolution,… the Abolition of Religious Disabilities… all these seem to us to be the successive stages of
one great revolution.” The whole of these great events have been so ably and so eloquently summarised by the inexhaustible Edmund Burke that I shall again venture to quote his words: “Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta. You will see that Sir Edward Coke, that great oracle of our law, and indeed all great men who follow him, to Blackstone, are industrious to prove the pedigree of our
liberties…. In the famous law of the third of Charles I., called the Petition of Right, the parliament says to the king, “Your subjects have inherited this
freedom;” claiming their franchise, not on abstract principles, as ‘the rights of men,
*107 but as the rights of Englishmen, and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers…. The same policy pervades
all the laws which have since been made for the preservation of our
liberties. In the first of William and Mary, in the famous statute called the Declaration of Right, the two Houses utter not a syllable of ‘a right to frame a government for themselves.’ You will see that their whole care was to secure the religion, laws and
liberties, that had been long possessed, and had been lately endangered. Taking into their most serious consideration the best means for making such an establishment, that their religion, laws and
liberties might not be in danger of being again subverted. You will observe” he adds, “that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our
liberties, as an entailed inheritance, derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity…. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a House of Commons; and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and
liberties from a long line of ancestors.”
I know of no passage with which I can more suitably close this chapter than the following from the pen of Sir Erskine May:—”The whole history of England” says that writer, “is in fact the history of popular rights and franchises acquired, maintained, extended, and developed, without subverting the ancient constitution of the State. It is the history of reforms, not of revolutions. It is the history of a monarchy under which the people have acquired all the freedom of a republic.”
by equal laws.“