Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION II: The Division of Parliament into two Houses, and the peculiar Privileges acquired by each House. - An Historical View of the English Government
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SECTION II: The Division of Parliament into two Houses, and the peculiar Privileges acquired by each House. - John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government 
An Historical View of the English Government, From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Revolution in 1688, in four volumes, edited by Mark Salber Philips and Dale R. Smith, introduction by Mark Salber Philips (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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The Division of Parliament into two Houses, and the peculiar Privileges acquired by each House.
The members of the great council, in all the feudal governments of Europe, were divided originally into two classes or orders; the one composed of ecclesiastical, the other of lay barons. These two sets of men, from their circumstances and way of life, having a different interest, and being actuated by different views of policy, entertained a mutual jealousy, and were frequently disposed to combat and thwart the designs of each other. In the conduct of national business, they usually held separate conferences among themselves; and when they afterwards came to a joint meeting, were accustomed, instead of voting promiscuously, to deliver, upon the part of each, the result of their previous deliberations. As each of those bodies was possessed of independent authority,<218> it would have been dangerous to venture upon any measure of importance, in opposition to the inclination or judgment of either; and, therefore, in all public transactions which they had occasion to determine, the concurrence of both was held indispensable. Hence, by long custom, they became two separate estates, having each a negative upon the resolutions of the legislature.
When the burgesses were admitted into the national assembly, they were, by their situation and character, still more distinguished from the ecclesiastical and lay barons, than these last from each other. They acted, not in their own name, but in the name of those communities, by whom they had been appointed, and to whom they were accountable: at the same time that the chief object in requiring their attendance, was to give their consent to such peculiar aids, or taxes, as were demanded from their constituents. It was necessary, therefore, that they should consult among themselves, in matters relating to their peculiar interest; and, as the department allotted them was unconnected with that of all the other members, they naturally obtained a separate<219> voice in the assembly. We may easily conceive, that when this method of procedure had been established in the imposition of taxes, it was afterwards, upon the subsequent rise of the burgesses, extended to every branch of parliamentary business, in which they claimed the privilege of interfering. Thus, in all the feudal kingdoms which had made advances in commerce, the great council came to be composed of three estates:13 each of whom, in the determination of public measures, enjoyed a separate negative.
Whether these different classes of men should be convened in the same, or in different places, depended, in all probability, upon accident, and in particular on the number of their members, which, at the times of their meeting, might render it more or less difficult to procure them accommodation. In England, the prelates, and the nobility, were accustomed, in ordinary cases, to meet in the same place; although it is likely that each of them, in order to settle their plan of operations, had previous consultations among themselves. When the deputies from counties and boroughs were first<220> called into parliament, they proceeded upon the same plan, and were included in the same meeting with the ancient members. It is probable, that the boroughs, then in a condition to use this privilege, were not numerous. To a parliament held in the eleventh of Edward the first, we find that no more than twenty towns were required to send representatives; of which two were summoned from each town.* But upon the regular establishment of the deputies from counties and boroughs, in the twenty-third year of that reign, the number of the latter was greatly encreased. The returning boroughs, from each of which two representatives were generally required, are said to have then amounted to about an hundred and twenty; besides thoses belonging to Wales, of which there are supposed to have been about twelve.† <221>
From the number of the burgesses at this time, from the influence and weight which they had acquired, and from their peculiar character and circumstances, as representing the commercial interest, they now found it convenient, it should seem, to have a different place of meeting from the other members of parliament, and began to form a separate body, which was called the house of commons.<222>
The knights of shires continued, for some time after, to sit in what now became the house of peers. Although the small barons were, in general, excused from personal attendance, yet, as crown-vassals, they had still a title to vote in parliament; and such of them as attended, even in consequence of an election, were at first considered in the same light with the greater nobility. By appearing frequently, however, in the capacity of mere representatives, not only elected, but having their charges borne by their constituents, their privilege of attending in their own right was gradually lost and forgotten. In consequence of the progressive alienation and division of landed property, their personal influence was continually sinking, while that of the mercantile people was rising in the same proportion; and, as these two classes were thus brought nearer to a level, the landed gentry were often indiscriminately chosen to represent either the one or the other. In such a situation, it became at length an obvious improvement, that the deputies of the counties and boroughs, as by the circumstance of their being representatives, and responsible<223> to those who had appointed them, they were led into a similarity of procedure, should meet in the same house, and carry on their deliberations in common. It is conjectured by Carte, the historian, that this change was not effected before the latter part of the reign of Edward the third; but with respect to the precise time when it happened, there seems to be no evidence whatever.14
The coalition of these two orders of deputies may perhaps be regarded as the great cause of the authority acquired by the English house of commons. The members of that house were by this measure exalted to higher consideration and respect, from the increase of their numbers, as well as from the augmentation of their property. They now represented the mercantile people and the landed gentry; who, exclusive of those who remained in a state of servitude, composed the great body of the people, and who possessed a great proportion of the national wealth. Of those two classes of the free inhabitants, the landed gentry, for a long time, enjoyed the first rank; and the deputies of boroughs were therefore frequently<224> chosen among the neighbouring gentlemen, who, by reason of their independence, were more capable than their own burgesses of protecting their constituents. By joining together and confounding these different orders of representatives, the importance of either was in some degree communicated to both; at the same time that the people, under so many leaders, became attentive to their common privileges, and were taught to unite in defending them. Had all the constituents been to appear in the national council, they would have been a disorderly multitude, without aim or direction: by choosing deputies to manage their parliamentary interest, they became an army, reduced into regular subordination, and conducted by intelligent officers.
We accordingly find, that, even so early as the reign of Richard the second, the commons, when they had been induced to take party with the crown, were able to defeat the designs of the nobility, and to raise the sovereign from the lowest extremity to the height of absolute power. The sudden revolution, produced at that time by the national representa-<225>tives, was a prelude to those greater exertions, which, at a subsequent period, they displayed in a better cause.
In the principal kingdoms upon the continent of Europe, the third estate was differently constituted. It comprehended, as I formerly observed, no other deputies but those of the trading towns; a set of men, who, in comparison even of the small barons, or inferior gentry, were long obscure and insignificant. In supporting their privileges, the boroughs were not aided by the joint efforts of the counties; and the family interest of the representative was not super-added to the weight of his personal wealth.
In some of those kingdoms, therefore, as in France and in Spain, the monarch was enabled to break the aristocracy, and to annihilate the national council, before the third estate, in consequence of the advancement of commerce, was in a condition to establish its authority: in others, as in the German empire, the great nobles, before the deputies of towns had acquired much influence in the diet, reduced the power both of that assembly, and of the emperor, to a mere shadow.<226>
After the members of parliament had been accustomed to meet regularly in two separate places, the three estates were gradually melted down and lost, in the division of the two houses. The ecclesiastical and lay barons, who sat in the upper house, were led, most frequently, into a promiscuous deliberation; and did not think it worth while to demand a separate voice, except in determining any nice or important question, by which the interest of either was particularly affected. But as government came to be more established upon a regular plan, those extraordinary questions occurred less frequently; at the same time that the progress of knowledge, and of the arts, diminished the influence of the clergy, and rendered them less willing to hazard a direct and avowed contest with the nobles. The custom of deliberating promiscuously, was thus more and more confirmed, and the exertions of a separate negative, being considered as indications of obstinacy or a factious disposition, were marked with disapprobation and censure, and at length entirely exploded. It appears that, in the time of Richard the second, this innovation was not entirely compleated.<227>
The two houses, on the other hand, having occasion always to deliberate apart, acquired an independent authority, and were naturally regarded as distinct branches of the legislature. The resolutions of each house constituted a separate voice; and the concurrence of both was necessary in all the determinations of parliament.
After the formation of the two houses of parliament, in the manner just mentioned, each of them came to be possessed of certain peculiar privileges; which, although probably the objects of little attention in the beginning, have since risen to great political importance.
1. The house of commons, from the nature of its original establishment, obtained the sole power of bringing in money-bills. This was not, at first, regarded as a privilege, but was introduced merely for the sake of dispatch. The primitive house of commons was composed of burgesses only, empowered to grant the king a supply, by one general agreement, in place of the separate bargains, which had formerly been made with each borough. In conducting this business, each borough seems to have directed its repre-<228>sentatives with respect to the rate of assessment to which they should consent; and by collecting these particular directions, the sum total to be granted by the whole trading interest was easily ascertained. In a matter so simple as that of determining the extent of the contribution which, on any particular occasion, they were willing to make, the constituents found no difficulty either in preparing their deputies, by expressing a previous opinion upon the subject, or by sending them clear and pointed instructions, in case, from any new exigence, after the meeting of parliament, an unexpected demand was made by the sovereign.
According to this constitution of parliament, the imposition of taxes produced no intercourse between the two houses; but each house consented to the exactions laid upon that order of men with which it was connected. This method of procedure was continued so long as the house of commons consisted only of burgesses; but when the deputies from counties came to sit and deliberate along with them, a variation was necessary. The deputies of the counties having, by this change, assumed entirely the character of representatives, came<229> naturally to be limited, in the same manner as the burgesses, by the instructions of their constituents.* But those two orders of men, who now formed the cumulative body of the commons, were connected with different parts of the nation; and, while the burgesses were interested in the taxes laid upon the boroughs, the county-members had an equal concern in such as were paid by the landed gentry. In their promiscuous deliberations, therefore, upon the subject of taxation, it was found convenient, that each of them should not confine their views to that part of the community which they represented, but should agree in the duties to be paid in common by the whole of their constituents; and, as the taxes paid by landed gentry or small barons were of the same nature with those which were laid upon the great barons or peers, this naturally suggested the idea of a general assessment upon the nation at large, to be imposed by the concurrence of both houses of parliament. Hence<230> the introduction of tenths, fifteenths, and subsidies; the two former of which were taxes upon personal property; the last, upon estates real and personal. In the imposition of such taxes, both houses of parliament were equally concerned; and the concurrence of both was therefore held requisite.
The house of commons, however, if the precise sum to be granted by them had not been previously specified, were accustomed, in cases of this nature, to consult their constituents, and to regulate their conduct by the instructions which they received.
They could have no debate, therefore, on any occasion, upon the subject of taxation; as their province extended no farther than merely to declare the determination of their constituents. Upon this account, it was to no purpose that any particular tax should first become the subject of deliberation among the peers, and afterwards be submitted to the consideration of the commons; since, after the fullest and most laborious discussion of the question by the former, no other point could be considered by the latter, but whether the intended supply was agreeable to their instructions. The<231> most expedient course, in order to save time and useless disputation, was evidently, that the commons should begin with stating the exact sum which they had been empowered to grant; and that the tax proposed by them should afterwards be examined and canvassed in the house of peers, whose conduct, in this as well as in other particulars, was not subject to any direction or controul.
From the same circumstance which introduced the practice, that every proposal for a tax should originate in the house of commons, it became customary that every such proposal or bill, when presented to the house of peers, should receive their simple assent, or negative, without variation or amendment. It could answer no purpose, to return the bill, with amendments, to the house of commons; because the members of that house had no power of deliberating upon such matters, and, having once declared the opinion of their constituents, could not venture to deviate from it in any subsequent stage of the business.
It is probable, at the same time, that this mode of conducting the business of taxation was promoted by the king; who, finding the<232> people of inferior condition most ready to acquiesce in his demands, was willing that, by taking the lead in the imposition of taxes, they might incite the nobility to follow their example, and make them ashamed of declining a burden which they were much more able to bear.
Such appears to have been the origin of this important privilege, which is now justly regarded by Englishmen as one of the greatest pillars of their free constitution. Like many other parts of the British government, it arose from views of immediate conveniency; and its distant consequences were neither foreseen nor intended: but, after it had received the sanction of immemorial custom, it was preserved inviolable, without any consideration of the circumstances from which it had taken its rise. As the commons interfered by degrees in legislation, and in various other branches of business, their interpositions became too extensive and complicated, to permit that they should be regulated by the opinion of constituents living at a distance. In consequence of more liberal views, it came also to be considered as the duty of each representative, to pro-<233>mote the good of the nation at large, even in opposition to the interest of that particular community which he represented. The instructions, therefore, of constituents were laid aside, or regarded as producing no obligation, upon any set of deputies, to depart from the dictates of their own conscience. The expediency of this important privilege, with which the house of commons came thus accidentally to be invested, will fall more properly to be examined hereafter.
2. Upon the establishment of the two houses of parliament, the supreme judiciary power was, on the other hand, appropriated to the house of peers. The jurisdiction belonging to the Saxon Wittenagemote was exercised promiscuously by all the members of that assembly; and in the Norman parliaments, both before and after the formation of the aula regis, the same rule was observed. It seems, however, to be a principle of natural law, that when a magistrate of any sort is invested with jurisdiction, he is bound to a personal discharge of the duties of his office, and has no power to commit the exercise of them to a delegate. The public, by whom he is appointed, has a<234> right to the fruit of that capacity or diligence, upon account of which he was selected to the office; and as, in the decision of law-suits, no security can be given that different individuals will act precisely in the same manner, the appointment of a delegate for the discharge of this employment, would be to impose upon the public a different rate or measure of service from that which was due. Upon this principle, the members of the house of commons, having only a delegated power, were excluded from the exercise of that jurisdiction with which the members of parliament, in general, had been anciently invested. Their disqualification, at the same time, was rendered still more apparent, by their acting in consequence of instructions from their constituents. The counties and boroughs might be in a condition, from their general information, to instruct their deputies concerning the taxes to be imposed, or even concerning any law to be enacted, but were altogether incapable of directing them how to proceed in the determination of law-suits. The decision given in any cause must depend upon a complex view of the proofs and arguments produced in court;<235> and, therefore, no person who is absent, especially in cases where the chief part of the business is transacted viva voce,15 can form any proper judgment concerning it. Upon this account, the only members of parliament, qualified to act as judges, came to be those who sat in their own right, who had the liberty to form their opinions upon the spot, and, by an immediate investigation of the circumstances, were capable of deciding from the impression made upon their own minds.
From the same cause, therefore, which bestowed upon the commons the right of suggesting taxes, the house of peers became the ultimate tribunal of the nation, and obtained the power of determining, in the last resort, both civil and criminal actions. Thus, while one of these branches of the legislature enjoyed an immediate access to the purses of the people for the public service, the other was intrusted with the guardianship of their lives and fortunes. What was acquired by the commons, in one department, was fully compensated by what fell to the share of the peers in another; so that the constitution remained upon its an-<236>cient basis, and was kept in equilibrio by an equal distribution of privileges.
It may farther deserve to be remarked, that, by the exclusion of the commons from the judicial power, the supreme tribunal of the nation came to be composed of a moderate number of persons; a circumstance highly conducive to the uniformity of their decisions, as well as to the expedition and regularity of their procedure.
When law-suits before the Norman parliament had become frequent, it was found inconvenient to determine them in a full meeting, and they were brought, in the first instance, before the aula regis. But even as a court of review, the parliament, after the deputies of boroughs and counties were obliged to give constant attendance, was perhaps too numerous; while, by the division of its members into two houses, they were prevented, at least, according to their usual forms, from co-operating with one another in the distribution of justice. The same regulation, therefore, which was introduced from the peculiar situation of the lords and of the commons, was<237> afterwards recommended, no doubt, and supported by general considerations of utility.
3. The supreme judiciary power being limited to the house of peers, the right of impeachment was of course devolved upon the commons.
When the persons intrusted with great offices under the crown, or enjoying any share in the public administration, were guilty of malversation in office, or of what are called high misdemeanors, it was frequently thought necessary, that they should be tried before the highest court in the nation, whose weight alone was adequate to the task of bringing such powerful offenders to justice. In the earlier periods of the English government, the national council was accustomed to inquire into the conduct of the different executive officers, and to punish them for their offences. The king himself was not exempted from such inquiry and punishment, more than persons of inferior rank. On such great occasions, the prosecution, instead of being committed, as in ordinary crimes, to the management of an individual, was usually conducted by the assembly, who acted both in the capacity of accusers and<238> judges. This was, doubtless, a practice ill calculated for securing a fair trial to the delinquent; but it was no more than what happened in criminal trials before the ordinary courts of justice, where the king was both judge and prosecutor.
Upon the establishment of the two houses of parliament, it became a natural and obvious improvement, that, as the power of trying those offences was restricted to the house of peers, the privilege of conducting the accusation should belong to the commons; that branch of the legislative assembly, which had no share in the judicial department, though it was no less concerned than the other to prevent the abuses of administration. In this manner the two characters of a judge and a prosecutor, which, in the ordinary courts, had been placed in different hands by the custom of appointing deputies to officiate in the name of the crown, came likewise to be separated in the trial of those extraordinary crimes, where, from the danger of arbitrary measures, an amendment of the ancient method of proceeding was most especially requisite.
4. Beside the foregoing privileges, which,<239> from the influence of peculiar circumstances, were acquired by the different branches of parliament, either house was led to assume the power of ascertaining the persons of whom it was composed; a jurisdiction and authority over them, and the cognizance of the several rights and immunities belonging to their own order. Hence it came to be established, that the house of commons should determine questions concerning the election of its own members; and that every bill affecting the rights of the peerage should take its origin in the house of peers. The privileges arising from this principle, which have been acquired by the house of commons, were afterwards greatly multiplied, and variously subdivided, in consequence of the attention given by that house to the forms of its procedure, and to the rules and maxims necessary for securing its independence.<240>
[13. ]That is, the nobility, the upper clergy, and the commons.
[* ]The trading towns, who sent representatives to this parliament, were London, York, Carlisle, Scarborough, Nottingham, Grimesby, Lincoln, Northampton, Lynne, Yarmouth, Colchester, Norwich, Chester, Shrewsbury, Worcester, Hereford, Bristol, Canterbury, Winchester, and Exeter. See Carte’s Hist.
[† ]Some of these boroughs, however, were omitted in the summons to future parliaments. Mr. Browne Willis, from a diligent inspection of such materials, as he could find, to afford any information upon this point, is of opinion, that from about the middle of Edward the third’s reign, to the beginning of that of Edward the sixth, the parliament consisted of a pretty uniform number of boroughs: that, about this last period, it consisted of 126, and at no former time amounted to 130. See Notitia Parliam.
[14. ]Thomas Carte (1686–1754), English Jacobite historian and author of A General History of England (1747–55). For his argument that counties and boroughs do not start to meet in common before the latter part of Edward III’s reign, see vol. 2, bk. 10, 451; on the 1339 parliament and knights of shires pleading to not grant a tax without consent of constituents, see 433.
[* ]In a parliament held in the year 1339, that is, about the middle of the reign of Edward the third, we find the knights of shires pleading that they durst not grant a tax without the consent of their constituents. Carte.
[15. ]Spoken aloud.