A fragment on government/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

British Constitution

1. With a set of data, such as we have seen in the last chapter, we may judge whether our author can meet with any difficulty in proving the British Constitution to be the best of all possible governments, or indeed anything else that he has a mind. In his paragraph on this subject there are several things that lay claim to our attention. But it is necessary we should have it under our eye.

2. `But happily for us in1 this island the British Constitution has long remained, and I trust will long continue, a standing exception to the truth of this observation. For, as with us the executive power of the laws is lodged in a single person, they have all the advantages of strength and dispatch that are to be found in the most absolute monarchy: and, as the legislature of the kingdom is entrusted to three distinct powers entirely independent of each other; first, the King; secondly, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, which is an aristocratical assembly of persons selected for their piety, their birth, their wisdom, their valour, or their property; and thirdly, the House of Commons, freely chosen by the people from among themselves, which makes it a kind of democracy; as this aggregate body, actuated by different springs, and attentive to different interests, composes the British Parliament, and has the supreme disposal of every thing; there can no inconvenience be attempted by either of the three branches, but will be withstood by one of the other two; each branch being armed with a negative power sufficient to repel any innovation which it shall think inexpedient or dangerous.'

3. `Here then is lodged the sovereignty of the British Constitution; and lodged as beneficially as is possible for society. For in no other shape could we be so certain of finding the three great qualities of Government so well and so happily united. If the supreme power were lodged in any one of the three branches separately, we must be exposed to the inconveniencies of either absolute monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy; and so want two of the principal ingredients of good polity, either virtue, wisdom, or power. If it were lodged in any two of the branches; for instance, in the King and House of Lords, our laws might be providently made and well executed, but they might not always have the good of the people in view: if lodged in the King and Commons, we should want that circumspection and mediatory caution, which the wisdom of the Peers is to afford: if the supreme rights of legislature were lodged in the two Houses only, and the King had no negative upon their proceedings, they might be tempted to encroach upon the royal prerogative, or perhaps to abolish the kingly office, and thereby weaken (if not totally destroy) the strength of the executive power. But the constitutional government of this island is so admirably tempered and compounded, that nothing can endanger or hurt it, but destroy ing the equilibrium of power between one branch of the legislature and the rest. For if ever it should happen that the independence of any one of the three should be lost, or that it should become subservient to the views of either of the other two, there would1 soon be an end of our constitution. The legislature would be changed from that which was originally set up by the general consent and fundamental act of the society; and such a change, however effected, is, according to Mr Locke (who perhaps carries his theory too far) at once an entire dissolution of the bands of Government, and the people would be reduced to a state of anarchy, with liberty to constitute to themselves a new legislative power.'

4. In considering the first of these two paragraphs, in the first place, the phenomenon we should little expect to see from any thing that goes before, is a certain executive power, that now, for the first time, bolts out upon us without warning or introduction.

The power, the only power our Author has been speaking of all along till now, is the legislative. `Tis to this, and this alone, that he has given the name of `sovereign power'. `Tis this power, the different distributions of which he makes the characteristics of his three different forms of government. `Tis with these different distributions, distributions made of the legislative power, that, according to his account, are connected the several qualifications laid down by him, as `requisites for supremacy': qualifications in the possession of which consist all the advantages which can belong to any form of Government. Coming now then to the British Constitution, it is in the superior degree in which these qualifications of the legislative body are possessed by it, that its peculiar excellence is to consist. It is possessing the qualification of strength, that it possesses the advantage of a monarchy. But how is it then that, by his account, it possesses the qualification of strength? By any disposition made of the legislative power? By the legislative power's being lodged in the hands of a single person, as in the case of a monarchy? No; but to a disposition made of a new power, which comes in, as it were, in a parenthesis, a new power which we now hear of for the first time, a power which has not, by any description given of it, been distinguished from the legislative, an executive.

5. What then is this same executive power? I doubt our Author would not find it a very easy matter to inform us. `Why not?' says an objector'is it not that power which in this country the King has in addition to his share in the legislative?' Be it so: the difficulty for a moment is staved off. But that it is far enough from being solved, a few questions will soon shew us. This power, is it that only which the King really has, or is it all that he is said to have? Is it that only which he really has, and which he exercises, or is it that also, which although he be said to have it, he neither does exercise, nor may exercise? Does it include judiciary power or not? If it does, does it include the power of making as well particular decisions and orders, as general, permanent, spontaneous regulations of procedure, such as are some of those we see made by judges? Doth it include supreme military power, and that as well in ordinary as in a time of martial law? Doth it include the supreme fiscal power;[1] and, in general, that power which, extending as well over the public money as over every other article of public property, may be styled the dispensatorial?[2] Doth it include the power of granting patents for inventions, and charters of incorporation? Doth it include the right of making bye-laws in corporations? And is the right of making bye-laws in corporations the superior right to that of conferring the power to make them, or is it that there is an executive power that is superior to a legislative? This executive again, doth it include the right of substituting the laws of war to the laws of peace; and vice versa, the laws of peace to the laws of war? Doth it include the right of restraining the trade of subjects by treaties with foreign powers? Doth it include the right of delivering over, by virtue of the like treaties, large bodies of subjects to foreign laws?He that would understand what power is executive and not legislative, and what legislative and not executive, he that would mark out and delineate the different species of constitutional powers, he that would describe either what is, or what ought to be the constitution of a country, and particularly of this country, let him think of these things.

6. In the next place we are told in a parenthesis (it being a matter so plain as to be taken for granted) that `each of these branches of the Legislature is independent,`yes, `entirely independent', of the two others.Is this then really the case? Those who consider the influence which the King and so many of the Lords have in the election of members of the House of Commons; the power which the King has, at a minute's warning, of putting an end to the existence of any House of Commons; those who consider the influence which the King has over both Houses, by offices of dignity and profit given and taken away again at pleasure; those who consider that the King, on the other hand, depends for his daily bread on both Houses, but more particularly on the House of Commons; not to mention a variety of other circumstances that might be noticed in the same view, will judge what degree of precision there was in our Author's meaning, when he so roundly asserted the affirmative.

7. One parenthesis more: for this sentence teems with parenthesis within parenthesis. To this we are indebted for a very interesting piece of intelligence: nothing less than a full and true account of the personal merits of the members of the House of Lords for the time being. This he is enabled to do, by means of a contrivance of his own, no less simple than it is ingenious: to wit, that of looking at their titles. It is by looking at men's titles that he perceives, not merely that they ought to possess certain merits, not that there is reason to wish they may possess them, but that they do actually possess them, and that it is by possessing those merits that they came to possess these titles. Seeing that some are bishops, he knows that they are pious: seeing that some are peers, he knows that they are wise, rich, valiant.[3]

8. The more we consider the application he makes of the common place notions concerning the three forms of Government to our own, the more we shall see the wide difference there is between reading and reflecting. Our own he finds to be a combination of these three. It has a Monarchical branch, an Aristocratical, and a Democratical. The Aristocratical is the House of Lords; the Democratical is the House of Commons. Much had our Author read, at school, doubt less, and at college, of the wisdom and gravity of the Spartan senate: something, probably, in Montesquieu, and elsewhere, about the Venetian. He had read of the turbulence and extravagance of the Athenian mob. Full of these ideas, the House of Lords were to be our Spartans or Venetians; the House of Commons, our Athenians. With respect then to the point of wisdom, (for that of honesty we will pass by) the consequence is obvious. The House of Commons, however excellent in point of honesty, is an assembly of less wisdom than that of the House of Lords. This is what our Author makes no scruple of assuring us. A Duke's son gets a seat in the House of Commons. There needs no more to make him the very model of an Athenian cobbler.

9. Let us find out, if we can, whence this notion of the want of wisdom in the members of a Democracy, and of the abundance of it in those of an Aristocracy, could have had its rise. We shall then see with what degree of propriety such a notion can be transferred to our Houses of Lords and Commons.

In the members of a Democracy in particular, there is likely to be a want of wisdom Why? The greater part being poor, are, when they begin to take upon them the management of affairs, uneducated: being uneducated, they are illiterate: being illiterate, they are ignorant. Ignorant, therefore, and unwise, if that be what is meant by ignorant, they begin. Depending for their daily bread on the profits of some petty traffic, or the labour of some manual occupation, they are nailed to the work-board, or the counter. In the business of Government, it is only by fits and starts that they have leisure so much as to act: they have no leisure to reflect. Ignorant therefore they continue. But in what degree is this the case with the members of our House of Commons?

10. On the other hand, the members of an Aristocracy, being few, are rich: either they are members of the Aristocracy, because they are rich; or they are rich, because they are members of the Aristocracy. Being rich, they are educated: being educated, they are learned: being learned, they are knowing. They are at leisure to reflect, as well as act. They may therefore naturally be expected to become more knowing, that is more wise, as they persevere. In what degree is this the case with the members of the House of Lords more than with those of the House of Commons? The fact is, as every body sees, that either the members of the House of Commons are as much at leisure as those of the House of Lords; or, if occupied, occupied in such a way as tends to give them a more than ordinary insight into some particular department of Government. In whom shall we expect to find so much knowledge of Law as in a professed Lawyer? of Trade, as in a Merchant?

11. But hold Our Author, when he attributes to the members of an Aristocracy more wisdom than to those of a Democracy, has a reason of his own. Let us endeavour to understand it, and then apply it, as we have applied the others. In Aristocratical bodies, we are to understand there is more experience at least it is intended by some body or other there should be: which, it seems, answers the same purpose as if there was. `In Aristocracies,' says our Author, `there is more wisdom to be found, than in the other frames of Government; being composed,' continues he, `or intended to be composed, of the most experienced citizens."[4] On this ground then it is, that we are to take for granted, that the members of the House of Lords have more wisdom among them, than those of the House of Commons. It is this article of experience that, being a qualification possessed by the members of an Aristocratical body, as such, in a superior degree to that in which it can be possessed by a democratical body, is to afford us a particular ground for attributing a greater share of wisdom to the members of the upper house, than to those of the lower.

12. How it is that a member of an aristocracy, as such, is, of all things, to have attained more experience than the member of a democracy, our Author has not told us; nor what it is this experience is to consist of. Is it experience of things preparatory to, but different from, the business of governing? This should rather go by the name of knowledge. Is it experience of the business itself of governing? Let us see. For the member of the one body, as of the other, there must be a time when he first enters upon this business. They both enter upon it, suppose on the same day. Now then is it on that same day that one is more experienced in it than the other? or is it on that day ten years?

13. Those indeed who recollect what we observed but now,[5] may answer without hesitation,on that day ten years. The reason was there given. It is neither more nor less, than that want of leisure which the bulk of the numerous members of a Democracy must necessarily labour under, more than those of an Aristocracy. But of this, what intimation is there to be collected, from any thing that has been suggested by our Author?

14. So much with respect to Aristocracies in general. It happens also by accident, that that particular branch of our own government to which he has given the name of the Aristocratical, the House of Lords, has actually greater opportunities of acquiring the qualification of experience, than that other branch, the House of Commons, to which he has given the name of the democratical. But to what is this owing? not to any thing in the characteristic natures of those two bodies, not to the one's being Aristocratical, and the other Democratical; but to a circumstance, entirely foreign and accidental, which we shall see presently. But let us observe his reasoning. The House of Lords, he says, is an assembly that behoves to have more wisdom in it, than the House of Commons. This is the proposition. Now for the proof. The first is an Aristocratical assembly; the second a Democratical. An Aristocratical assembly has more experience than a Democratical; and on that account more wisdom. Therefore the House of Lords, as was to be proved, has more wisdom than the House of Commons. Now, what the whole of the argument rests upon, we may observe, is this fact, that an Aristocratical assembly, as such, has more experience than a Democratical one; but this, with Aristocratical assemblies in general, we see, is not, for any reason that our Author has given us, the case. At the same time with respect to our House of Lords in particular, in comparison with the House of Commons, it does happen to be the case, owing to this simple circumstance: the members of the House of Lords, when once they begin to sit, sit on for life: those of the House of Commons only from seven years to seven years, or it may happen, less.

15. In speaking, however, in this place, of experience, I would rather be understood to mean opportunity of acquiring experience, than experience itself. For actual experience depends upon other concurrent causes.

16. It is, however, from superiority of experience alone, that our Author derives superiority of wisdom. He has, indeed, the proverb in his favour: `Experience,' it has been said of old, `is the Mother of Wisdom:' be it so; but then Interest is the Father. There is even an Interest that is the Father of Experience. Among the members of the House of Commons, though none so poor as to be illiterate, are many whose fortunes, according to the common phrase, are yet to make. The fortunes of those of the House of Lords (I speak in general) are made already. The members of the House of Commons may hope to be members of the House of Lords. The members of the House of Lords have no higher House of Lords to rise to. Is it natural for those to be most active who have the least, or those who have the most interest to be so? Are the experienced those who are the least, or those who are the most active? Does experience come to men when asleep, or when awake? Is it the members of the House of Lords that are the most active, or of the House of Commons? To speak plain, is it in the House of Lords that there is most business done, or in the House of Commons? Was it after the fish was caught that the successor of St Peter used the net, or was it before?[6] In a word is there most wisdom ordinarily where there is least, or where there is most to gain by being wise?[7]

17. A word or two more with respect to the characteristic qualifications, as our Author states them, of the higher assembly of our legislature. Experience is, in virtue of their being an anstocratical assembly, to afford them wisdom: thus far we were arrived before. But he now pushes the deduction a step farther.Wisdom is to afford them `circumspection and mediatory caution;' qualifications which it seems as if we should see nothing of, were it not for them. Let us now put a case. The business, indeed, that originates in the House of Lords is, as things stand, so little, that our Author seems to forget that there is any. However, some there is. A bill then originates with the Lords, and is sent down to the Commons. As to `circumspection' I say nothing: that, let us hope, is not wanting to either House. But whose province is `mediatory caution,' now?

18. Thus much concerning these two branches of our legislature, so long as they continue what, according to our Author's principles, they are at present: the House of Lords the Aristocratical branch: the House of Commons the Democratical. A little while and we shall see them so; but again a little while, perhaps, and we shall not see them so. By what characteristic does our Author distinguish an Aristocratical legislative body from a Democratical one? By that of number: by the number of the persons that compose them: by that, and that alone: for no other has he given. Now, therefore, to judge by that, the House of Lords, at present, indeed, is the Aristocratical branch: the House of Commons in comparison at least with the other, the Democratical. Thus far is well. But should the list of nobility swell at the rate we have sometimes seen it, there is an assignable period, and that, perhaps, at no very enormous distance, at which the assembly of the Lords will be more numerous than that of the Commons. Which will then be the Aristocratical branch of our Legislature? Upon our Author's principles, the House of Commons. Which the Democratical? The House of Lords.

19. The final cause we are to observe, and finishing exploit, the `portus et sabbatum', as Lord Bacon might perhaps have called it,[8] of this sublime and edifying dissertation, is this demonstration, he has been giving us, of the perfection of the British Form of Government. This demonstration (for by no less a title ought it to be called) is founded, we may have observed, altogether upon the properties of numbers: properties, newly discovered indeed, and of an extraordinary complection, moral properties; but properties, however, so it seems, of numbers.[9] `Tis in the nature then of numbers we shall find these characteristic properties of the three Forms of Government, if anywhere. Now the properties of numbers are universally allowed to be the proper subject of that mode of demonstration which is called mathematical. The proof our Author has given has therefore already in it the essence of such a demonstration. To be compleat at all points, it wants nothing but the form. This deficiency is no other than what an under-rate workman might easily supply. A mere technical operation does the business. That humble task it shall be my endeavour to perform. The substantial honour I ascribe wholly to our Author, to whom only it is most due.

20. PROPOSITION THEOREM

The British Government is all-perfect

DEMONSTRATION

By definition 1 The British Government = Monarchy + Aristocracy + Democracy.
Again, by definition, 2 Monarchy = the Government of 1.
Also, 3 Democracy = the Government of all.
Also 4 Aristocracy the Government of some number between 1 and all.
Put 5 All = 1,000,000
Put also 6 The number of governors in an Aristocracy = 1000
Now then, by assumption 7 1 has + strength - wisdom - honesty
Also 8 1000 has + wisdom - strength - honesty
Also 9 1,000,000 has + honesty - strength - wisdom
Rejecting - wisdom - honesty[10] in (7) 10 1 has + strength
Also rejecting - strength - wisdom in (8) 11 1000 has + wisdom
Also rejecting - strength - wisdom in (9) 12 1,000,000 has + honesty
Putting together the expressions (10), (11) and (12) 13 1 + 1000 + 1,000,000 has strength + wisdom + honesty
But by definition (1), (2), (3), (4) and the suppositions (5), (6) 14 The British Government = 1 + 1000 + 1,000,000
Therefore, by (13) 15 The British Government has + strength + wisdom + honesty
Changing the expression 16 The British Government is all-powerful + all-wise + all-honest
But by definition 17 All-powerful + all-wise + all-honest - all-perfect
Therefore, by (16) and (17) 18 The British Government is all-perfect, Q.E.D.

SCHOLIUM. After the same manner it may be proved to be all weak, all-foolish, and all-knavish.

21. Thus much for the British Constitution; and for the grounds of that pre-eminence which it boasts, I trust, indeed, not without reason above all others that are known: Such is the idea our Author gives us of those grounds. 'You are not satisfied with it then', says some one. Not perfectly. 'What is then your own? 'In truth this is more than I have yet quite settled. I may have settled it with myself, and not think it worth the giving: but if ever I do think it worth the giving, it will hardly be in the form of a comment on a digression stuffed into the belly of a definition. At any rate it is not likely to be much wished for, by those, who have read what has been given us on this subject by an ingenious foreigner: since it is to a foreigner we were destined to owe the best idea that has yet been given of a subject so much our own. Our Author has copied: but Mr. DE L'OLME has thought.

The topic which our Author has thus brought upon the carpet (let any one judge with what necessity) is in respect to some parts of it that we have seen, rather of an invidious nature. Since, however, it has been brought upon the carpet, I have treated it with that plainness with which an Englishman of all others is bound to treat it, because an Englishman may thus treat it and be safe. I have said what the subject seemed to demand, without any fear indeed, but without any wish, to give offence: resolving not to permit myself to consider how this or that man might chance to take it. I have spoken without sycophantical respects indeed, yet I hope not without decency: certainly without any party spleen. I chose rather to leave it to our Author to compliment men in the lump: and to stand aghast with admiration at the virtues of men unknown.[11] Our Author will do as shall seem meet to him. For my part, if ever I stand forth and sing the song of eulogy to great men, it shall be not because they occupy their station, but because they deserve it.


  1. By fiscal power I mean that which in this country is exercised by what is called the Board of Treasury.
  2. By dispensatorial power I mean as well that which is exercised by the Board of Treasury, as those others which are executed in the several offices styled with us the War Office, Admiralty Board, Navy Board, Board of Ordnance, and Board of Works: excepting from the business of all these offices, the power of appointing persons to fill other subordinate offices: a power which seems to be of a distinct nature from that of making disposition of any article of public property. Power, political power, is either over persons or over things. The powers, then, that have been mentioned above, in as far as they concern things, are powers over such things as are the property of the public: powers which differ in this from those which constitute private ownership, in that the former are, in the main, not beneficial (that is, to the possessors themselves) and indiscriminate but fiduciary, and limited in their exercise to such acts as are conducive to the special purposes of public benefit and security.
  3. `The Lords spiritual and temporal' (p. 50) `which', says our Author, `is an aristocratical assembly of persons selected for their piety, their birth, their wisdom, their valour, or their property' I have distributed, I think, these endowments, as our Author could not but intend they should be distributed. Birth, to such of the members of that assembly as have their seat in it by descent: and, as to those who may chance from time to time to sit there by creation, wisdom, valour, and property in common among the temporal peers; and piety, singly but entirely, among my Lords the Bishops. As to the other three endowments, if there were any of them to which these right reverend persons could lay any decent claim, it would be wisdom: but since worldly wisdom is what it would be an ill compliment to attribute to them, and the wisdom which is from above is fairly included under piety, I conclude that, when secured in the exclusive possession of this grand virtue, they have all that was intended them. There is a remarkable period in our history, at which, measuring by our Author's scale, these three virtues seem to have been at the boiling point. It was in Queen Anne's reign, not long after the time of the hard frost. I mean in the year 1711. In that auspicious year, these three virtues issued forth, it seems, with such exuberance, as to furnish merit enough to stock no fewer than a dozen respectable persons, who, upon the strength of it, were all made Barons in a day? Unhappily indeed, so little read was a right reverend and contemporary historian,[ See Bishop Burnet's History of his own Times. Vol. 2.] in our Author's method of `discerning of spirits,' as to fancy, it was neither more nor less than the necessity of making a majority that introduced so large a body of new members thus suddenly into the house. But I leave it to those who are read in the history of that time, to judge of the ground there can be for so romantic an imagination. As to piety, the peculiar endowment of the mitre, the stock there is of that virtue, should, to judge by the like standard, be, at all times, pretty much upon a level: at all times, without question, at a maximum. This is what we can make the less doubt of, since, with regard to ecclesiastical matters, in general, our Author, as in another place he assures us, has had the happiness to find, that `every thing is as it should be.'[Vol. 4. Chap. iv. p.49.]
  4. p. 50
  5. V. supra, par. 9.
  6. Every body has heard the story of him who, from a fisherman, was made Archbishop, and then Pope. While Archbishop, it was his custom every day, after dinner, to have a fishing net spread upon his table, by way of a memento, as he used to say, of the meanness of his original. This farcical ostentation of humility was what, in those days, contributed not a little to the increase of his reputation. Soon after his exaltation to St Peter's chair, one of his intimates was taking notice to him, one day, when dinner was over, of the table's not being decked as usual. `Peace', answered the Holy Father, `when the fish is caught, there is no occasion for the net.'
  7. In the House of Commons itself, is it by the opulent and independent Country gentlemen that the chief business of the House is transacted, or by aspiring, and perhaps needy Courtiers? The man who would persevere in the toil of Government, without any other reward than the favour of the people, is certainly the man for the people to make choice of. But such men are at best but rare. Were it not for those children of Corruption we have been speaking of, the business of the state, I doubt, would stagnate.
  8. It is what he says of Theology with respect to the Sciences V. Augm. Scient. L. VIII. c. III, p. 97.
  9. V. supra.
  10. Which is done without any sort of ceremony, the quantities marked in the step with the negative sign, being as so many fluents, which are at a maximum, or a minimum, just as happens to be most convenient.
  11. V. supra, par. 7.