OUTLINE OF SUBJECT
THE TRUE NATURE OF
Burke writes in 1791:illegible
Great critics have taught us one essential rule…. It is this, that if ever we should find ourselves disposed not to admire those writers or artists, Livy and Virgil for instance, Raphael or Michael Angelo, whom all the learned had admired, not to follow our own fancies, but to study them until we know how and what we ought to admire; and if we cannot arrive at this combination of admiration with knowledge, rather to believe that we are dull, than that the rest of the world has been imposed on. It is as good a rule, at least, with regard to this admired constitution (of England). We ought to understand it according to our measure; and to venerate where we are not able presently to comprehend.
Hallam writes in 1818:
No unbiased observer who derives pleasure from the welfare of his species, can fail to consider the long and uninterruptediy increasing prosperity of England as the most beautiful phæomenon in the history of mankind. Climates more propitious may impart more largely the mere enjoyments of existence; but in no other region have the benefits that political institutions can confer been diffused over so extended a population; nor have any people so well reconciled the discordant elements of wealth, order, and liberty. These advantages are surely not owing to the soil of this island, nor to the latitude in which it is placed; but to the spirit of its laws, from which, through various means, the characteristic independence and industrious-ness of our nation have been derived. The constitution, therefore, of Eng land must be to inquisitive men of all countries, far more to ourselves, an object of superior interest; distinguished, especially, as it is from all free governments of powerful nations, which history has recorded, by its manifesting, after the lapse of several centuries, not merely no symptom of irretrievable decay, but a more expansive energy.
These two quotations from authors of equal though of utterly different celebrity, recall with singular fidelity the spirit with which our grandfathers and our fathers looked upon the institutions of their country. The constitution was to them, in the quaint language of George the Third, “the most perfect of human formations”; it was to them not a mere polity to be compared with the government of any other state, but so to speak a sacred mystery of statesmanship; it “had (as we have all heard from our youth up) not been made but had grown”; it was the fruit not of abstract theory but of that instinct which (it is supposed) has enabled Englishmen, and especially uncivilised Englishmen, to build up sound and lasting institutions, much as bees construct a honeycomb, without undergoing the degradation of understanding the principles on which they raise a fabric more subflely wrought than any work of conscious art. The constitution was marked by more than one transcendent quality which in the eyes of our fathers raised it far above the imitations, counterfeits, or parodies, which have been set up during the last hundred years throughout the civilised world; no precise date could be named as the day of its birth; no definite body of persons could claim to be its creators, no one could point to the document which contained its clauses; it was in short a thing by itself, which Englishmen and foreigners alike should “venerate, where they are not able presently to comprehend.”
Modern view of constitution The present generation must of necessity look on the constitution in a spirit different from the sentiment either of 1791 or of 1818. We cannot share the religious enthusiasm of Burke, raised, as it was, to the temper of fanatical adoration by just hatred of those “doctors of the modem school,” who, when he wrote, were renewing the rule of barbarism in the form of the reign of terror; we cannot exactly echo the fervent self-complacency of Hallam, natural as it was to an Englishman who saw the institutions of England standing and flourishing, at a time when the attempts of foreign reformers to combine freedom with order had ended in ruin. At the present day students of the constitution wish neither to criticise, nor to venerate, but to understand; and a professor whose duty it is to lecture on constitutional law, must feel that he is called upon to perform the part neither of a critic nor of an apologist, nor of an eulogist, but simply of an expounder; his duty is neither to attack nor to defend the constitution, but simply to explain its laws. He must also feel that, however attractive be the mysteries of the constitution, he has good reason to envy professors who belong to countries such as France, Belgium, or the United States, endowed with constitutions of which the terms are to be found in printed documents, known to all citizens and accessible to every man who is able to read. Whatever may be the advantages of a so-called “unwritten” constitution, its existence imposes special difficulties on teachers bound to expound its provisions. Any one will see that this is so who compares for a moment the position of writers, such as Kent or Story, who commented on the Constitution of America, with the situation of any person who undertakes to give instruction in the constitutional law of England.
illegible When these distinguished jurists delivered, in the form of lectures, commentaries upon the Constitution of the United States, they knew precisely what was the subject of their teaching and what was the proper mode of dealing with it. The theme of their teaching was a definite assignable part of the law of their country; it was recorded in a given document to which all the world had access, namely, “the Constitution of the United States established and ordained by the People of the United States.” The articles of this constitution fall indeed far short of perfect logical arrangement, and lack absolute lucidity of expression; but they contain, in a clear and intelligible form, the fundamental law of the Union. This law (be it noted) is made and can only be altered or repealed in a way different from the method by which other enactments are made or altered; it stands forth, therefore, as a separate subject for study; it deals with the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, and, by its provisions for its own amendment, indirectly defines the body in which resides the legislative sovereignty of the United States. Story and Kent therefore knew with precision the nature and limits of the department of law on which they intended to comment; they knew also what was the method required for the treatment of their topic. Their task as commentators on the constitution was in kind exactly similar to the task of commenting on any other branch of American jurisprudence. The American lawyer has to ascertain the meaning of the Articles of the Constitution in the same way in which he tries to elicit the meaning of any other enactment. He must be guided by the rules of grammar, by his knowledge of the common law, by the light (occasionally) thrown on American legislation by American history, and by the conclusions to be deduced from a careful study of judicial decisions. The task, in short, which lay before the great American commentators was the explanation of a definite legal document in accordance with the received cannons of legal interpretation. Their work, difficult as it might prove, was work of the kind to which lawyers are accustomed, and could be achieved by the use of ordinary legal methods. Story and Kent indeed were men of extraordinary capacity; so, however, were our own Blackstone, and at least one of Blackstone's editors. If, as is undoubtedly the case, the American jurists have produced commentaries on the constitution of the United States utterly unlike, and, one must in truth add, vastly superior to, any commentaries on the constitutional law of England, their success is partly due to the possession of advantages denied to the English commentator or lecturer. His position is entirely different from that of his American rivals. He may search the statute-book from beginning to end, but he will find no enactment which purports to contain the articles of the constitution; he will not possess any test by which to discriminate laws which are constitutional or fundamental from ordinary enactments; he will discover that the very term “constitutional law,” which is not (unless my memory deceives me) ever employed by Black stone, is of comparatively modern origin; and in short, that before commenting on the law of the constitution he must make up his mind what is nature and the extent of English constitutional law.
illegible His natural, his inevitable resource is to recur to writers of authority on the law, the history, or the practice of the constitution. He will find (it must be admitted) no lack of distinguished guides; he may avail himself of the works of lawyers such as Blackstone, of the investigations of historians such as Hallam or Freeman, and of the speculations of philosophical theorists such as Bagehot or Hearn. From each class he may learn much, but for reasons which I am about to lay before you for consideration, he is liable to be led by each class of authors somewhat astray in his attempt to ascertain the field of his labours and the mode of working it; he will find, unless he can obtain some clue to guide his steps, that the whole province of so-called “constitutional law” is a sort of maze in which the wanderer is perplexed by unreality, by antiquarianism, and by conventionalism.
illegible Let us turn first to the lawyers, and as in duty bound to Blackstone.
Of constitutional law as such there is not a word to be found in his Commentaries. The matters which appear to belong to it are dealt with by him in the main under the head Rights of Persons. The Book which is thus entitled treats (inter alia) of the Parliament, of the King and his title, of master and servant, of husband and wife, of parent and child. The arrangement is curious and certainly does not bring into view the true scope or character of constitutional law. This, however, is a trifle. The Book contains much real learning about our system of government. Its true defect is the hopeless confusion both of language and of thought, introduced into the whole subject of constitutional law by Blackstone's habit—common to all the lawyers of his time—of applying old and inapplicable terms to new institutions, and especially of ascribing in words to a modem and constitutional King the whole, and perhaps more than the whole, of the powers actually possessed and exercised by William the Conqueror.
We are next to consider those branches of the royal prerogative, which invest thus our sovereign lord, thus all-perfect and immortal in his kingly capacity, with a number of authorities and powers; in the exertion whereof consists the executive part of the government. This is wisely placed in a single hand by the British constitution, for the sake of unanimity, strength, and dispatch. Were it placed in many hands, it would be subject to many wills: many wills, if disunited and drawing different ways, create weakness in a government; and to unite those several wills, and reduce them to one, is a work of more time and delay than the exigencies of state will afford. The King of England is, therefore, not only the chief, but properly the sole, magistrate of the nation; all others acting by commission from, and in due subordination to him; in like manner as, upon the great revolution of the Roman state, all the powers of the ancient magistracy of the commonwealth were concentrated in the new Emperor: so that, as Gravina expresses it, inejus unius persona veteris reipublicae vis atque majestas per cumulatas magistratuumpotestates exprimebatur.
The language to this passage is impressive; it stands curtailed but in substance unaltered in Stephen's Commentaries. It has but one fault; the statements it contains are the direct opposite of the truth. The executive of England is in fact placed in the hands of a committee called the Cabinet. If there be any one person in whose single hand the power of the State is placed, that one person is not the King but the chairman of the committee, known as the Prime Minister. Nor can it be urged that Blackstone's description of the royal authority was a true account of the powers of the King at the time when Blackstone wrote. George the Third enjoyed far more real authority than has fallen to the share of any of his descendants. But it would be absurd to maintain that the language I have cited painted his true position. The terms used by the commentator were, when he used them, unreal, and known to be so. They have become only a little more unreal during the century and more which has since elapsed.
The King is considered in domestic affairs…, as the fountain of justice, and general conservator of the peace of the kingdom.… He therefore has alone the right of erecting courts of judicature: for, though the constitution of the kingdom hath entrusted him with the whole executive power of the laws, it is impossible, as well as improper, that he should personally carry into execution this great and extensive trust: it is consequently necessary, that courts should be erected to assist him in executing this power; and equally necessary, that if erected, they should be erected by his authority. And hence it is, that all jurisdictions of courts are either mediately or immediately derived from the Crown, their proceedings run generally in the King's name, they pass under his seal, and are executed by his officers.
Here we are in the midst of unrealities or fictions. Neither the King nor the Executive has anything to do with erecting courts of justice. We should rightly condude that the whole Cabinet had gone mad if to-morrow's Gazette contained an order in council not authorised by statute erecting a new Court of Appeal. It is worth while here to note what is the true injury to the study of law produced by the tendency of Blackstone, and other less famous constitutionalists, to adhere to unreal expressions. The evil is not merely or mainly that these expressions exaggerate the power of the Crown. For such conventional exaggeration a reader could make allowance, as easily as we do for ceremonious terms of respect or of social courtesy. The harm wrought is, that unreal language obscures or conceals the true extent of the powers, both of the King and of the Government. No one, indeed, but a child, fancies that the King sits crowned on his throne at Westminster, and in his own person administers justice to his subjects. But the idea entertained by many educated men that an English King or Queen reigns without taking any part in the government of the country, is not less far from the truth than the notion that Edward VII. ever exercises judicial powers in what are called his Courts. The oddity of the thing is that to most Englishmen the extent of the authority actually exercised by the Crown—and the same remark applies (in a great measure) to the authority exercised by the Prime Minister, and other high officials—is a matter of conjecture. We have all learnt from Blackstone, and writers of the same class, to make such constant use of expressions which we know not to be strictly true to fact, that we cannot say for certain what is the exact relation between the facts of constitutional government and the more or less artificial phraseology under which they are concealed. Thus to say that the King appoints the Ministry is untrue; it is also, of course, untrue to say that he creates courts of justice; but these two untrue statements each bear a very different relation to actual facts. Moreover, of the powers ascribed to the Crown, some are in reality exercised by the Government, whilst others do not in truth belong either to the King or to the Ministry. The general result is that the true position of the Crown as also the true powers of the Government are concealed under the fictitious ascription to the sovereign of political omnipotence, and the reader of, say, the first Book of Blackstone, can hardly discern the facts of law with which it is filled under the unrealities of the language in which these facts find expression.
II Historian's view of constitution its antiquarianism Let us turn from the formalism of lawyers to the truthfulness of our constitutional historians.
Here a student or professor troubled about the nature of constitutional law finds himself surrounded by a crowd of eminent instructors. He may avail himself of the impartiality of Hallam: he may dive into the exhaustless erudition of the Bishop of Oxford: he will discover infinite parliamentary experience in the pages of Sir Thomas May, and vigorous common sense, combined with polemical research, in Mr. Freeman's Growth of the English Constitution. Let us take this book as an excellent type of historical constitutionalism. The Growth of the English Constitution is known to every one. Of its recognised merits, of its dearness, of its accuracy, of its force, it were useless and impertinent to say much to students who know, or ought to know, every line of the book from beginning to end. One point, however, deserves especial notice. Mr. Freeman's highest merit is his unrivalled faculty for bringing every matter under discussion to a dear issue. He challenges his readers to assent or deny. If you deny you must show good cause for your denial, and hence may learn fully as much from rational disagreement with our author as from unhesitating assent to his views. Take, then, the Growth of the English Constitution as a first-rate specimen of the mode in which an historian looks at the constitution. What is it that a lawyer, whose object is to acquire the knowledge of law, will learn from its pages? A few citations from the ample and excellent head notes to the first two chapters of the work answer the inquiry.
They run thus:
The Landesgemeinden of Uri and Appenzell; their bearing on English Constitutional History; political elements common to the whole Teutonic race; monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements to be found from the beginning; the three classes of men, the noble, the common freeman, and the slave; universal prevalence of slavery; the Teutonic institutions common to the whole Aryan family; witness of Homer; description of the German Assemblies by Tacitus; continuity of English institutions; English nationality assumed; Teutonic institutions brought into Britain by the English conquerors; effects of the settlement on the conquerors; probable increase of slavery; Earls and Churls; growth of the kingly power; nature of kingship; special sanctity of the King; immemorial distinction between Kings and Ealdormen… … Gradual growth of the English constitution; new laws seldom called for; importance of precedent; return to early principles in modem legislation; shrinking up of the ancient national Assemblies; constitution of the Witenagemét; the Witenagemét continued in the House of Lords; Geméts after the Norman Conquest; the King's right of summons; Life Peerages; origin of the House of Commons; comparison of English and French national Assemblies; of English and French history generally; course of events influenced by particular men; Simon of Montfort… Edward the First; the constitution finally completed under him; nature of later changes; difference between English and continental legislatures.
All this is interesting, erudite, full of historical importance, and thoroughly in its place in a book concerned solely with the “growth” of the constitution; but in regard to English law and the law of the constitution, the Landesgemeinden of Uri, the witness of Homer, the ealdormen, the constitution of the Witenagemét, and a lot more of fascinating matter are mere antiquarianism. Let no one suppose that to say this is to deny the relation between history and law. It were far better, as things now stand, to be charged with heresy, than to fall under the suspicion of lacking historical-mindedness, or of questioning the universal validity of the historical method. What one may assert without incurring the risk of such crushing imputations is, that the kind of constitutional history which consists in researches into the antiquities of English institutions, has no direct bearing on the rules of constitutional law in the sense in which these rules can become the subject of legal comment. Let us eagerly learn all that is known, and still more eagerly all that is not known, about the Witenagemét. But let us remember that antiquarianism is not law, and that the function of a trained lawyer is not to know what the law of England was yesterday, still less what it was centuries ago, or what it ought to be to-morrow, but to know and be able to state what are the principles of law which actually and at the present day exist in England. For this purpose it boots nothing to know the nature of the Landesgemeinden of Uri, or to understand, if it be understandable, the constitution of the Witenagemét. All this is for a lawyer's purposes simple antiquarianism. It throws as much light on the constitution of the United States as upon the constitution of England; that is, it throws from a legal point of view no light upon either the one or the other.
Contrast between legal and historical view of constitution The name of the United States serves well to remind us of the true relation between constitutional historians and legal constitutionalists. They are each concerned with the constitution, but from a different aspect. An historian is primarily occupied with ascertaining the steps by which a constitution has grown to be what it is. He is deeply, sometimes excessively, concerned with the question of “origins.” He is but indirectly concerned in ascertaining what are the rules of the constitution in the year 1908. To a lawyer, on the other hand, the primary object of study is the law as it now stands; he is only secondarily occupied with ascertaining how it came into existence. This is absolutely dear if we compare the position of an American historian with the position of an American jurist. The historian of the American Union would not commence his researches at the year 1789; he would have a good deal to say about Colonial history and about the institutions of England; he might, for aught I know, find himself impelled to go back to the Witenagemét; he would, one may suspect, pause in his researches considerably short of Uri. A lawyer lecturing on the constitution of the United States would, on the other hand, necessarily start from the constitution itself. But he would soon see that the articles of the constitution required a knowledge of the Articles of Confederation; that the opinions of Washington, of Hamilton, and generally of the “Fathers,” as one sometimes hears them called in America, threw light on the meaning of various constitutional articles; and further, that the meaning of the constitution could not be adequately understood by any one who did not take into account the situation of the colonies before the separation from England and the rules of common law, as well as the general conceptions of law and justice inherited by English colonists from their English forefathers. As it is with the American lawyer compared with the American historian, so it is with the English lawyer as compared with the English historian. Hence, even where lawyers are concerned, as they frequently must be, with the development of our institutions, arises a further difference between the historical and the legal view of the constitution. Historians in their devotion to the earliest phases of ascertainable history are infected with a love which, in the eyes of a lawyer, appears inordinate, for the germs of our institutions, and seem to care little about their later developments. Mr. Freeman gives but one-third of his book to anything as modem as the days of the Stuarts. The period of now more than two centuries which has elapsed since what used to be called the “Glorious Revolution,” filled as those two centuries are with change and with growth, seems hardly to have attracted the attention of a writer whom lack, not of knowledge, but of will has alone prevented from sketching out the annals of our modem constitution. A lawyer must look at the matter differently. It is from the later annals of England he derives most help in the study of existing law. What we might have obtained from Dr. Stubbs had he not surrendered to the Episcopate gifts which we hoped were dedicated to the University alone, is now left to conjecture. But, things being as they are, the historian who most nearly meets the wants of lawyers is Mr. Gardiner. The struggles of the seventeenth century, the conflict between James and Coke, Bacon's theory of the prerogative, Charles's effort to substitute the personal will of Charles Stuart for the legal will of the King of England, are all matters which touch not remotely upon the problems of actual law. A knowledge of these things guards us, at any rate, from the illusion, for illusion it must be termed, that modern constitutional freedom has been established by an astounding method of retrogressive progress; that every step towards civilisation has been a step backwards towards the simple wisdom of our uncultured ancestors. The assumption which underlies this view, namely, that there existed among our Saxon forefathers a more or less perfect polity, conceals the truth both of law and of history. To ask how a mass of legal subtleties
would have looked…, in the eyes of a man who had borne his part in the elections of Edward and of Harold, and who had raised his voice and dashed his arms in the great Assembly which restored Godwine to his lands,
is to put an inquiry which involves an untenable assumption; it is like asking what a Cherokee Indian would have thought of the claim of George the Third to separate taxation from representation. In each case the question implies that the simplicity of a savage enables him to solve with fairness a problem of which he cannot understand the terms. Civilisation may rise above, but barbarism sinks below the level of legal fictions, and our respectable Saxon ancestors were, as compared, not with ourselves only, but with men so like ourselves as Coke and Hale, respectable barbarians. The supposition, moreover, that the cunning of lawyers has by the invention of legal fictions corrupted the fair simplicity of our original constitution, underrates the statesmanship of lawyers as much as it overrates the merits of early society. The fictions of the Courts have in the hands of lawyers such as Coke served the cause both of justice and of freedom, and served it when it could have been defended by no other weapons. For there are social conditions under which legal fictions or subtleties afford the sole means of establishing that rule of equal and settled law which is the true basis of English civilisation. Nothing can be more pedantic, nothing more artificial, nothing more unhistorical, than the reasoning by which Coke induced or compelled James to forego the attempt to withdraw cases from the Courts for his Majesty's personal determination. But no achievement of sound argument, or stroke of enlightened statesmanship, ever established a rule more essential to the very existence of the constitution than the principle enforced by the obstinacy and the fallacies of the great Chief-Justice. Oddly enough, the notion of an ideal constitution corrupted by the technicalities of lawyers is at bottom a delusion of the legal imagination. The idea of retrogressive progress is merely one form of the appeal to precedent. This appeal has made its appearance at every crisis in the history of England, and indeed no one has stated so forcibly as my friend Mr. Freeman himself the peculiarity of all English efforts to extend the liberties of the country, namely, that these attempts at innovation have always assumed the form of an appeal to preexisting rights. But the appeal to precedent is in the law courts merely a useful fiction by which judicial decision conceals its transformation into judicial legislation; and a fiction is none the less a fiction because it has emerged from the Courts into the field of politics or of history. Here, then, the astuteness of lawyers has imposed upon the simplicity of historians. Formalism and antiquarianism have, so to speak, joined hands; they have united to mislead students in search for the law of the constitution.
Let us turn now to the political theorists.
illegible No better types of such thinkers can be taken than Bagehot and Professor Heam. No author of modem times (it may be confidently asserted) has done so much to elucidate the intricate workings of English government as Bagehot. His English Constitution is so full of brightness, originality, and wit, that few students notice how full it is also of knowledge, of wisdom, and of insight. The slight touches, for example, by which Bagehot paints the reality of Cabinet government, are so amusing as to make a reader forget that Bagehot was the first author who explained in accordance with actual fact the true nature of the Cabinet and its real relation to the Crown and to Parliament. He is, in short, one of those rare teachers who have explained intricate matters with such complete clearness, as to make the public forget that what is now so dear ever needed explanation. Professor Hearn may perhaps be counted an anticipator of Bagehot. In any case he too has approached English institutions from a new point of view, and has looked at them in a fresh light; he would be universally recognised among us as one of the most distinguished and ingenious exponents of the mysteries of the English constitution, had it not been for the fact that he made his fame as a professor, not in any of the seats of learning in the United Kingdom, but in the University of Melbourne. From both these writers we expect to learn, and do learn much, but, as in the case of Mr. Freeman, though we learn much from our teacher which is of value, we do not learn precisely what as lawyers we are in search of. The truth is that both Bagehot and Professor Hearn deal and mean to deal mainly with political understandings or conventions and not with rules of law. What is the precise moral influence which might be exerted by a wise constitutional monarch; what are the circumstances under which a Minister is entitled to dissolve Parliament; whether the simultaneous creation of a large number of Peers for a special purpose is constitutionally justifiable; what is the principle on which a Cabinet may allow of open questions—these and the like are the kind of inquiries raised and solved by writers whom, as being occupied with the conventional understandings of the constitution, we may term conventionalists. These inquires are, many of them, great and weighty; but they are not inquiries which will ever be debated in the law courts. If the Premier should advise the creation of five hundred Peers, the Chancery Division would not, we may be sure, grant an injunction to restrain their creation. If he should on a vote of censure decline to resign office, the King's Bench Division would certainly not issue a quo wvarranto calling upon him to show cause why he continues to be Prime Minister. As a lawyer, I find these matters too high for me. Their practical solution must be left to the profound wisdom of Members of Parliament; their speculative solution belongs to the province of political theorists.
illegible One suggestion a mere legist may be allowed to make, namely, that the authors who insist upon and explain the conventional character of the understandings which make up a great part of the constitution, leave unexplained the one matter which needs explanation. They give no satisfactory answer to the inquiry how it happens that the understandings of politics are sometimes at least obeyed as rigorously as the commands of law. To refer to public opinion and to considerations of expediency is to offer but a very inadequate solution of a really curious problem. Public opinion approves and public expediency requires the observance of contracts, yet contracts are not always observed, and would (presumably) be broken more often than they are did not the law punish their breach, or compel their performance. Meanwhile it is certain that understandings are not laws, and that no system of conventionalism will explain the whole nature of constitutional law, if indeed “constitutional law” be in strictness law at all.
illegible For at this point a doubt occurs to one's mind which must more than once have haunted students of the constitution. Is it possible that so-called “constitutional law” is in reality a cross between history and custom which does not properly deserve the name of law at all, and certainly does not belong to the province of a professor called upon to learn or to teach nothing but the true indubitable law of England? Can it be that a dark saying of Tocqueville's, “the English constitution has no real existence” (elle n'existe point ), contains the truth of the whole matter? In this case lawyers would gladly surrender a domain to which they can establish no valid title. The one half of it should, as belonging to history, go over to our historical professors. The other half should, as belonging to conventions which illustrate the growth of law, be transferred either to my friend the Corpus Professor of Jurisprudence, because it is his vocation to deal with the oddities or the outlying portions of legal science, or to my friend the Chichele Professor of International Law, because he being a teacher of law which is not law, and being accustomed to expound those rules of public ethics which are miscalled international law, will find himself at home in expounding political ethics which, on the hypothesis under consideration, are miscalled constitutional law.
Before, however, admitting the truth of the supposition that “constitutional law” is in no sense law at all, it will be well to examine a little further into the precise meaning which we attach to the term constitutional law, and then consider how far it is a fit subject for legal exposition.
It consists of two different kinds of rules. Constitutional law, as the term is used in England, appears to include all rules which directly or indirectly affect the distribution or the exercise of the sovereign power in the state. Hence it indudes (among other things) all rules which define the members of the sovereign power, all rules which regulate the relation of such members to each other, or which determine the mode in which the sovereign power, or the members thereof, exercise their authority. Its rules prescribe the order of succession to the throne, regulate the prerogatives of the chief magistrate, determine the form of the legislature and its mode of election. These rules also deal with Ministers, with their responsibility, with their spheres of action, define the territory over which the sovereignty of the state extends and settle who are to be deemed subjects or citizens. Observe the use of the word “rules,” not “laws.” This employment of terms is intentional. Its object is to call attention to the fact that the rules which make up constitutional law, as the term is used in England, include two sets of principles or maxims of a totally distinct character.
(i) Rules which are true laws—law of the constitution The one set of rules are in the strictest sense “laws,” since they are rules which (whether written or unwritten, whether enacted by stat ute or derived from the mass of custom, tradition, or judge-made maxims known as the Common Law) are enforced by the Courts; these rules constitute “constitutional law” in the proper sense of that term, and may for the sake of distinction be called collectively “the law of the constitution.”
illegible The other set of rules consist of conventions, understandings, habits, or practices which, though they may regulate the conduct of the several members of the sovereign power, of the Ministry, or of other officials, are not in reality laws at all since they are not enforced by the Courts. This portion of constitutional law may, for the sake of distinction, be termed the “conventions of the constitution,” or constitutional morality.
To put the same thing in a somewhat different shape, “constitutional law,” as the expression is used in England, both by the public and by authoritative writers, consists of two elements. The one element, here called the “law of the constitution,” is a body of undoubted law; the other element, here called the “conventions of the constitution,” consists of maxims or practices which, though they regulate the ordinary conduct of the Crown, of Ministers, and of other persons under the constitution, are not in strictness laws at all. The contrast between the law of the constitution and the conventions of the constitution may be most easily seen from examples.
illegible To the law of the constitution belong the following rules:
“The King can do no wrong.” This maxim, as now interpreted by the Courts, means, in the first place, that by no proceeding known to the law can the King be made personally responsible for any act done by him; if (to give an absurd example) the King were himself to shoot the Premier through the head, no court in England could take cognisance of the act. The maxim means, in the second place, that no one can plead the orders of the Crown or indeed of any superior officer in defence of any act not otherwise justifiable by law; this principle in both its applications is (be it noted) a law and a law of the constitution, but it is not a written law. “There is no power in the Crown to dispense with the obligation to obey a law;” this negation or abolition of the dispensing power now depends upon the Bill of Rights; it is a law of the Constitution and a written law. “'some person is legally responsible for every act done by the Crown.” This responsibility of Ministers appears in foreign countries as a formal part of the constitution; in England it results from the combined action of several legal principles, namely, first, the maxim that the King can do no wrong; secondly, the refusal of the Courts to recognise any act as done by the Crown, which is not done in a particular form, a form in general involving the affixing of a particular seal by a Minister, or the counter-signature or something equivalent to the counter-signature of a Minister; thirdly, the principle that the Minister who affixes a particular seal, or countersigns his signature, is responsible for the act which he, so to speak, endorses; this again is part of the constitution and a law, but it is not a written law. So again the right to personal liberty, the right of public meeting, and many other rights, are part of the law of the constitution, though most of these rights are consequences of the more general law or principle that no man can be punished except for direct breaches of law (i.e. crimes) proved in the way provided by law (i.e. before the Courts of the realm).
To the conventions of the constitution belong the following maxims:
Examples of rules which belong to convention of the constitution. “The King must assent to, or (as it is inaccurately expressed) cannot ‘veto’ any bill passed by the two Houses of Parliament”; “the House of lord does not originate any money bill”; “when the House of Lords acts as a Court of Appeal, no peer who is not a law lord takes part in the decisions of the House”; Ministers resign office when they have ceased to command the confidence of the House of Commons”; “a bill must be read a certain number of times before passing through the House of Commons.” These maxims are distinguished from each other by many differences; under a new or written constitution some of them probably would and some of them would not take the form of actual laws. Under the English constitution they have one point in common: they are none of them “laws” in the true sense of that word, for if any or all of them were broken, no court would take notice of their violation.
It is to be regretted that these maxims must be called “conventional,” for the word suggests a notion of insignificance or unreality. This, however, is the last idea which any teacher would wish to convey to his hearers. Of constitutional conventions or practices some are as important as any laws, though some may be trivial, as may also be the case with a genuine law. My object, however, is to contrast, not shams with realities, but the legal element with the conventional element of so-called “constitutional law.”
illegible This distinction differs essentially, it should be noted, from the distinction between “written law” (or statute law) and “unwritten law” (or common law). There are laws of the constitution, as, for example, the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement, and Habeas Corpus Acts, Which are “written law,” found in the statute-books in other words, are statutory enactments. There are other most important laws of the constitution (several of which have already been mentioned) which are “unwritten” laws, that is, not statutory enactments. Some further of the laws of the constitution, such, for example, as the law regulating the descent of the Crown, which were at one time unwritten or common law, have now become written or statute law. The conventions of the constitution, on the other hand, cannot be recorded in the statute-book, though they may be formally reduced to writing. Thus the whole of our parliamentary procedure is nothing but a mass of conventional law; it is, however, recorded in written or printed rules. The distinction, in short, between written and unwritten law does not in any sense square with the distinction between the law of the constitution (constitutional law properly so called) and the conventions of the constitution. This latter is the distinction on which we should fix our whole attention, for it is of vital importance, and elucidates the whole subject of constitutional law. It is further a difference which may exist in countries which have a written or statutory constitution. In the United States the legal powers of the President, the Senate, the mode of electing the President, and the like, are, as far as the law is concerned, regulated wholly by the law of the constitution. But side by side with the law have grown up certain stringent conventional rules, which, though they would not be noticed by any court, have in practice nearly the force of law. No President has ever been re-elected more than once: the popular approval of this conventional limit (of which the constitution knows nothing) on a President's re-eligibility proved a fatal bar to General Grant's third candidature. Constitutional understandings have entirely changed the position of the Presidential electors. They were by the founders of the constitution intended to be what their name denotes, the persons who chose or selected the President; the chief officer, in short, of the Republic was, according to the law, to be appointed under a system of double election. This intention has failed; the “electors” have become a mere means of voting for a particular candidate; they are no more than so many ballots cast for the Republican or for the Democratic nominee. The understanding that an elector is not really to elect, has now become so firmly established, that for him to exercise his legal power of choice is considered a breach of political honour too gross to be committed by the most unscrupulous of politicians. Public difficulties, not to say dangers, might have been averted if, in the contest between Mr. Hayes and Mr. Tilden, a few Republican electors had felt themselves at liberty to vote for the Democratic candidate. Not a single man among them changed his side. The power of an elector to elect is as completely abolished by constitutional understandings in America as is the royal right of dissent from bills passed by both Houses by the same force in England. Under a written, therefore, as under an unwritten constitution, we find in full existence the distinction between the law and the conventions of the constitution.
illegible Upon this difference I have insisted at possibly needless length, because it lies at the very root of the matter under discussion. Once grasp the ambiguity latent in the expression “constitutional law,” and everything connected with the subject falls so completely into its right place that a lawyer, called upon to teach or to study constitutional law as a branch of the law of England, can hardly fail to see dearly the character and scope of his subject.
With conventions or understandings he has no direct concern. They vary from generation to generation, almost from year to year. Whether a Ministry defeated at the polling booths ought to retire on the day when the result of the election is known, or may more properly retain office until after a defeat in Parliament, is or may be a question of practical importance. The opinions on this point which prevail today differ (it is said) from the opinions or understandings which prevailed thirty years back, and are possibly different from the opinions or understanding which may prevail ten years hence. Weighty precedents and high authority are cited on either side of this knotty question; the dicta or practice of Russell and Peel may be balanced off against the dicta or practice of Beaconsfield and Gladstone. The subject, however, is not one of law but of politics, and need trouble no lawyer or the class of any professor of law. If he is concerned with it at all, he is so only in so far as he may be called upon to show what is the connection (if any there be) between the conventions of the constitution and the law of the constitution.
This the true constitutional law is his only real concern. His proper function is to show what are the legal rules (i.e. rules recognised by the Courts) which are to be found in the several parts of the constitution. Of such rules or laws he will easily discover more than enough. The rules determining the legal position of the Crown, the legal fights of the Crown's Ministers, the constitution of the House of Lords, the constitution of the House of Commons, the laws which govern the established Church, the laws which determine the position of the non-established Churches, the laws which regulate the army,— these and a hundred other laws form part of the law of the constitution, and are as truly part of the law of the land as the articles of the Constitution of the United States form part of the law of the Union.
Law of constitution can be expounded like any other branch of english law. The duty, in short, of an English professor of law is to state what are the law which from part of the constitution, to arrange them in their order, to explain their meaning, and to exhibit where possible their logical connection. He ought to expound the unwritten or partly unwritten constitution of England, in the same manner in which Story and Kent have expounded the written law of the American constitution. The task has its special perplexities, but the difficulties which beset the topic are the same in kind, though not in degree, as those which are to be found in every branch of the law of England. You are called upon to deal partly with statute law, partly with judge-made law; you are forced to rely on Parliamentary enactments and also on judicial decisions, on authoritative dicta, and in many cases on mere inferences drawn from judicial doctrines; it is often difficult to discriminate between prevalent custom and acknowledged right. This is true of the endeavour to expound the law of the constitution all this is true also in a measure of any attempt to explain our law of contract, our law of torts, or our law of real property.
Moreover, teachers of constitutional law enjoy at this moment one invaluable advantage. Their topic has, of recent years, become of immediate interest and of pressing importance. These years have brought into the foreground new constitutional questions, and have afforded in many instances the answers thereto. The series of actions connected with the name of Mr. Bradlaugh has done as much to clear away the obscurity which envelops many parts of our public law as was done in the eighteenth century by the series of actions connected with the name of John Wilkes. The law of maintenance has been rediscovered; the law of blasphemy has received new elucidation. Everybody now knows the character of a penal action. It is now possible to define with precision the relation between the House of Commons and the Courts of the land; the legal character and solemnity of an oath has been made patent to all the world, or at any rate to all those persons who choose to read the Law Reports. Meanwhile circumstances with which Mr. Bradlaugh had no connection have forced upon public attention all the various problems connected with the right of public meeting. Is such a right known to the law? What are the limits within which it may be exercised? What is the true definition of an “unlawful assembly”? How far may citizens lawfully assembled assert their right of meeting by the use of force? What are the limits within which the English constitution recognises the right of self-defence? These are questions some of which have been raised and all of which may any day be raised before the Courts. They are inquiries which touch the very root of our public law. To find the true reply to them is a matter of importance to every citizen. While these inquiries require an answer the study of the law of the constitution must remain a matter of pressing interest. The fact, however, that the provisions of this law are often embodied in cases which have gained notoriety and excite keen feelings of political partisanship may foster a serious misconception. Unintelligent students may infer that the law of the constitution is to be gathered only from famous judgments which embalm the results of grand constitutional or political conflicts. This is not so. Scores of unnoticed cases, such as the Parlement Beige, or Thomas v. The Queen, touch upon or decide principles of constitutional law. Indeed every action against a constable or collector of revenue enforces the greatest of all such principles, namely, that obedience to administrative orders is no defence to an action or prosecution for acts done in excess of legal authority. The true law of the constitution is in short to be gathered from the sources whence we collect the law of England in respect to any other topic, and forms as interesting and as distinct, though not as well explored, a field for legal study or legal exposition as any which can be found. The subject is one which has not yet been fully mapped out. Teachers and pupils alike therefore suffer from the inconvenience as they enjoy the interest of exploring a province of law which has not yet been entirely reduced to order.
This inconvenience has one great compensation. We are compelled to search for the guidance of first principles, and as we look for a clue through the mazes of a perplexed topic, three such guiding principles gradually become apparent. They are, first, the legislative sovereignty of Parliament;secondly, the universal rule or supremacy throughout the constitution of ordinary law; and thirdly (though here we tread on more doubtful and speculative ground), the dependence in the last resort of the conventions upon the law of the constitution. To examine, to elucidate, to test these three principles, forms, at any rate (whatever be the result of the investigation), a suitable introduction to the study of the law of the constitution.