Page images




“If men would be content to graft upon Nature and assist her operations, what mighty effects might we expect.”--Addison.

It is not enough to observe the mere construction of the social order; we must examine also the mechanism by which it works. For the machinery must not merely exist, but it must also be capable of that perpetual movement which the restless life of the social elements requires. How is the requisite movement provided for in the organisation of societies in their acme ?

Now a constitution implies the co-existence of two or more powerful social elements, and signifies a mutual compact between them. Under a pure aristocracy, a pure monarchy, or a pure democracy, the essence of a constitution, a balance of conflicting interests, is totally wanting ; and, therefore, in the natural progress of society there can be no constitution till the original aristocracy has seen grow up against it two other elements — the monarchical and the democratic—to struggle for the supreme power, and to be the parties to the compromise out of which a constitution springs. This is what Montesquieu* meant when he said tersely that the corruption of the government of the conquering aristocracy has made the best form of government that men could imagine; and Montesquieu's best government was constitutional monarchy.

The constitutional stage of a nation is that in which the chief social elements have cach attained a nearly equal power, even where there is no constitution, or recognised participation of political power, as, for instance, in France before the revolution, where the three great social elements co-existed, though two of them usurped the entire functions of government and legislation, and the consequent violation of the intimate relation which ought to exist between the social state and the governmental system, produced the revolution.

A nation in its constitutional stage or acme is like a foxglove blossom,—a portion of it is decaying, a portion in full bloom, and another portion in bud.

Nations in this stage are, therefore, distinguishable into two broad classes : first, those which have both the social development necessary for a well-balanced constitutional monarchy, and which, in addition, have that government; and secondly, those which have the social development, but want the appropriate government.

Of the first we may take, without charge of national prejudice, England as the chief if not the only example. Our government, as I have before noted, is no rigid system transferred from the closet of the theorist to the public offices of the state, but like every other firm and useful government, has gradually evolved itself as an unconstrained consequence of the national growth. The perfect archetypal idea according to which (if we were to admit for the moment that archetypal ideas exist) it would seem to have been developed, was of this kind:-to the Crown was entrusted the executive and a veto on any legislative act passed by the two houses which constituted the Parliament. The first house consisted exclusively of the major

. barons, the descendants of the conquering race, who were guardians over their own estates, the privileges of their order, and the interests of the commonweal. The second was composed of a small number of representatives of minor barons or Franklins (among whom, perhaps, were

the old Anglo-Saxon nobility), and a majority of representatives from the cities, ports, and boroughs - what Coleridge calls the “personal interest." The advantage of this disposition of power was, that no one interest could successfully attempt to tyrannise over the other, as is the danger in all democracies. Should the landed interest combine to invade the rights of the personal interest, a majority in the lower house would defeat them. A conjunction of minor landholders and burgesses to overthrow the privileges of the

peers could equally have been defeated by the negative of the upper house. An attempt on the part of the major barons to invade the yeomanry would also be rendered unsuccessful by the combination of the personal interest with the Franklins, more their equals in life than the peers.

The genius of the British constitution, if ever it were personified, should have at least one of the characteristics of justice,-her scales. She should be a delicate female, the sole object of whose existence is to preserve the balance of a pair of scales placed in her hands. She has four weights called Monarchy, Aristocracy, Democracy, and Theocracy, the peculiar nature of which is, that they are continually changing their proportion. It is her object to shuffle these about so that the scales may always be equally balanced. The legend should run also, that if once either scale kicks the beam she dies. Her Euthanasia, if we believe Hume, will be when monarchy outweighs all the others.

To have established the three secular principles in equipoise and inter-dependency, is not the only achievement which Great Britain boasts. That they have grown up together in the country with nearly equal powers is the fortunate fact which has enabled our constitution to solve the great problem of bringing them into action without disturbance or convulsion. They are not only in equilibrium, but they act in equilibrium. It was this which presented itself to the mind of Tacitus as an almost insuperable difficulty, and justly, for it has never been overcome except by the parliamentary régime which Montesquieu, after spending a thoughtful life in surveying English government, which might be seen in action or known through the cold medium of history, establishes to be the beau-ideal of governments. In that celebrated chapter, the sixth of his eleventh book, in which he treats of the constitution of England, he lays down that there are in each state three sorts of powers :-the Legislative; the Executive, in affairs which relate to the rights of nations ; the Executive, in affairs which relate to civil right. There is no liberty if the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body of persons, because the same monarch or senate may make tyrannical laws in order to execute them tyrannically. There is no liberty if the judicial power is not separated from the legislative and the executive. If joined to the legislative the judge could be legislator, and his power over life and property arbi-. trary; if joined to the executive, the judge could have the force of an oppressor. Everything is lost if the same body of chiefs or the same man exercised all. There is despotism and absolutism whether of the one or of the many. In most European kingdoms the prince has the first two powers, his subjects the third. Among the Turks, as in the Venetian plutocracy and in the Athenian multitude after the time of Cleon, all are united. The

of judging ought not to be given to a permanent senate, but exercised by persons drawn from the body of the people at certain times of the year by law. There is always in a state which is or has been in a state of progress, a body of persons distinguished by birth, riches, or honours, to whom, if confounded with the people and allowed no distinct voice, the common liberty would be slavery ; the majority would exercise over them an absolute tyranny. It being therefore necessary that their part in legislation should be proportionate to the other advantages which they have in the state, it results that they form a body


which has the power to stop the illegal attempts of the people, as the people have the right to stop theirs. If there were no monarch, and the executive power were confided to a certain number of persons drawn from the legislative body, there could be no liberty, because the two powers would be to a certain extent united. The fundamental constitution of the government is that there exists a legislative body composed of two parties—an hereditary body of nobles and a body chosen to represent the people. The executive has only a veto on the legislative acts of the two houses.

This is, in brief, the idea of constitutional monarchy, as developed in Great Britain, and the model which so many of the continental nations have endeavoured in vain to transfer to their own countries. Why have they failed ? Simply because they have overlooked and disregarded the fact, that the parliamentary institutions depend for their stability on being the representatives of separate interests; and when they cease to be this, when one of these interests perishes, the power of the whole fabric must fall. When the balance of power ceases to coincide with the balance of property, that portion of the state which has the greatest wealth will demand a corresponding accession of power; and even should it not be granted constitutionally, will acquire it by what is called, in the phrase of the day, “ pressure from without.” It may,

therefore, safely be laid down as one of the conditions for the successful working of constitutional government, that the interest whose rights are provided for in this parliamentary system should have of itself strength enough to assert its rights, with chance of success, in a civil war. There must not only be a right of resistance, but also a power of resistance. Whatever sentimentalists (and sentimentalism is a dangerous virtue for a practical politician), whatever such persons may say about right, not might, it is quite certain that every state and every government which has existed for any length of time has been established by

« PreviousContinue »