Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION III: Concerning the Manner of electing the national Representatives, and the Forms of Procedure in Parliament. - An Historical View of the English Government
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SECTION III: Concerning the Manner of electing the national Representatives, and the Forms of Procedure in Parliament. - 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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Concerning the Manner of electing the national Representatives, and the Forms of Procedure in Parliament.
The establishment of a house of commons, consisting entirely of representatives, required a set of regulations for the election of its members. From the different situation of the counties and boroughs, the deputies of those two classes of men came to be chosen in a very different manner.
1. Upon the first incorporation of a borough, the nomination of particular persons, for distributing justice, for managing the funds, and for executing the other business of the community, would seem naturally to belong to all its members, who have a common concern in those branches of administration. In those towns, accordingly, where commerce had introduced a degree of wealth and independence among the bulk of the inhabitants, such a popular plan of government appears to have been generally adopted. But in many of the<241> boroughs, whose trade was more in its infancy, the people of inferior rank were still too poor, and in too servile a condition, to claim the privilege of electing their own administrators; and by their neglecting to intermeddle in public business, the care of every thing relating to the community was devolved upon particular citizens, distinguished by their opulence. When the boroughs were afterwards permitted to have a voice in parliament, the differences in their condition occasioned the same, or even a greater diversity in the mode of choosing their representatives; and, in a long course of time, many other varieties were added, from the operation of accidental circumstances. In some towns, therefore, the representatives were chosen by a considerable part, in others, by a very small proportion, of the inhabitants; in many, by a few individuals, and these, in particular cases, directed, perhaps, or influenced, by a single person.
Two sorts of inequality were thus produced in the representation of the mercantile and manufacturing interest: the one from the very different magnitude of the boroughs, who sent, for the most part, an equal number of representatives: the other, from the very<242> different number of voters, by whom, in each borough, those representatives were chosen. But this inequality, whatever bad consequences may have flowed from it in a later period, was originally an object of little attention, and excited no jealousy or complaint. The primitive burgesses were sent into parliament for the purpose chiefly of making a bargain with the crown, concerning the taxes to be imposed upon their own constituents; and the representatives of each borough had merely the power of consenting to the sum paid by that community which they represented, without interfering in what was paid by any other. It was of no consequence, therefore, to any one borough, that another, of inferior size or opulence, should have as many representatives in the national assembly; since those representatives, as far as taxes were concerned, could only protect their own corporation, but were incapable of injuring or hurting their neighbours. So far were the boroughs from entertaining a jealousy of one another upon this account, that some of them found it more eligible to acquiesce in whatever aids the king thought proper to demand, than to be at the expence of supporting their depu-<243>ties in parliament; and were willing to renounce the privilege, in order to be free of the burden attending it. Many instances of this occur in the English history, from the reign of Edward the first. Mr. Browne Willis has produced a large list of boroughs, which had early sent representatives into parliament, but which lost that privilege by disuse;16 and there is no doubt that several towns, which had been incorporated, and which obtained the denomination of boroughs, exerted themselves from the beginning, and successfully, in avoiding any parliamentary representation.
Neither was it originally of much importance to any parliamentary borough, in what manner its deputies were chosen; for these, being instructed by the corporation, with respect to the precise amount of the supply to be granted, were only the messengers, who declared the will of their constituents; and as they were not intrusted with discretionary powers, their behaviour occasioned no apprehension or anxiety. The honour of being the representative of a borough was, in those times, little coveted; and the privilege of voting in his election was yet less. The rank which the<244> burgesses held in parliament was too low to become the object of much interest or solicitation; and those who voted for a burgess, were so far from gaining any thing by it, that they had scarcely an opportunity of obliging their friends.
2. The knights of the shires were at first elected, in each county, by a meeting composed of the small barons, or vassals of the crown. Of this, from the nature of the thing, it seems hardly possible to doubt. The small barons had been originally members of parliament, but were excused from personal attendance, upon condition of their sending representatives. Who could have a right to chuse those representatives, but the persons whom they represented; the persons by whom they were sent; and who bore the charges of their attendance?
But although the vassals of the crown only had, in the beginning, a right to interfere in the appointment of the knights of shires; the rear-vassals, or such as held their lands of a subject-superior, were afterwards admitted to a share in the election. This, although an important change in the constitution of par-<245>liament, has passed, like many others, without any notice of cotemporary historians. Of the circumstances from which it proceeded, a probable conjecture seems to be the utmost that can be attained.
The small barons, or vassals, who, exclusive of the nobility, held their lands of the crown, and those who held them of a subject-superior, were separate orders of men, who originally, by their situation, were removed to a great distance from each other. As members of the community, they appeared to be distinguished most remarkably in two respects. The vassals of the crown sat in parliament: those of a subject-superior were members of his baron-court. The former were liable for aids, and for the other feudal incidents, to the king: the latter were bound, for similar duties, to their inferior liege lord.
But these distinctions, arising from the feudal policy, continued no longer than while that system remained in its vigour. After the reign of Edward the first, the small barons, having ceased to attend in parliament, otherwise than by representatives, were at length understood, unless when particularly called by<246> the king, to have no more a seat in that assembly than the vassals of a subject-superior.
With respect to the feudal incidents, great alterations, in the course of time, were also produced. The demesnes of the crown, together with the extraordinary aids, and other incidents, drawn from the crown-vassals, were the only original funds for supporting the expence of government. But when the charges of the public, in consequence of the gradual advancement of society, had from time to time been encreased, these funds became at length insufficient; new supplies were demanded by the king; and after stretching as far as possible the ancient duties of the crown-vassals, it was found necessary to levy an assessment upon all the proprietors of land, without considering whether they held immediately of the king, or of a subject. The greater part of the public burdens came thus to be imposed upon the nation at large; and the casual emoluments, which the crown derived from its immediate vassals, became, in proportion, of little importance.
In this situation, there was no longer any essential difference between the small pro-<247>prietors of land, who held immediately of the crown, and those who held of a subject. Neither of them had any right, in their own persons, to sit in the house of commons. Both of them, according to the later notions of property, had the same full power over the respective estates which they possessed; and the estates of both were equally subject to the taxes imposed upon the counties. Both of them, therefore, were equally beholden to the knights of the shires, by whose consent those taxes were imposed, and who had it in their power to secure either the one or the other from oppression. As those two classes of men thus reaped an equal benefit from the service of the knights of shires, it became reasonable that they should contribute jointly to the expence with which that service was attended; and if they joined in maintaining the county representatives, it was no less equitable, that they should have a voice in their election. If they submitted to the burden, they could not decently be excluded from the privilege.
By this relaxation of the feudal system, the foundation of the house of commons was en-<248>larged; and its establishment was rendered more extensively useful. The knights of the shires became properly the representatives, not of one class, but of the whole gentry of every rank and description. All the independent property in the kingdom was, according to this constitution, represented in parliament: the lords appeared in behalf of their own possessions; the inferior landed interest fell under the care of the county members; and the burgesses were entrusted with the protection of that wealth which was employed in trade.
Such, in all probability, were the circumstances, from which the rear-vassals obtained a share in the election of county-members; but at what time this change was produced is very uncertain. Mr. Hume has concluded, that it took place in consequence of an act of parliament in the reign of Henry the fourth. But when we examine that statute, it does not appear to have introduced any such regulation: on the contrary, it supposes that proprietors of land, not holding directly of the crown, had been formerly entitled to vote for the county-members; and makes a general provision for<249> securing the freedom of their election, as well as for preventing undue returns by the sheriff.*
A late respectable historian,17 notwithstanding all the light which has been thrown upon the subject in the present age, declares it still to be his opinion, not only that the knights of counties were coeval with the existence of the English parliament; but that, from the beginning, they were chosen, as at present, in a joint meeting of the rear-vassals, and those who held immediately of the crown.* The former part of this opinion has been already examined. With regard to the latter, it is totally inconsistent with the original plan of the feudal government. But what puts the matter beyond all possibility of doubt, is, that in Scotland, whose constitution, from a similarity of circumstances, as well as from imitation, is extremely analogous to that of England, but who, from the slow progress of arts, has retained a number of her primitive regulations; in Scotland, the original practice has been in-<250>variably continued; and, from the first introduction of county-representatives to the present day, no person who does not hold his lands immediately of the crown, whatever be the extent of his property, has ever been permitted to vote in a county election.†
When a number of crown-vassals had been excused from personal attendance in parliament, on account of the smallness of their fortunes, it might have been expected that some rule would be established, concerning the precise extent of property which gave a title to this concession; and that an exact line of partition would thus be formed between the small barons, or gentry, and the great barons, or nobility. It appears, however, that no such regulation was ever made. The liberty of absence enjoyed by particular members of parliament, seems to have depended, at first, upon the mere will of the sovereign, who never thought of restraining himself with regard to the terms upon which he granted this indulgence. To procure this liberty was the aim<251> of by far the greater part of the crown-vassals; as to prevent the unreasonable extension of it was the great object of the king; and the exemption was, by custom, established in favour of individuals, before any precautions had been suggested for ascertaining its boundaries.‡
The want of a general rule to define the limits, in point of property, between the small and the great barons, appears to have produced an irregularity in this part of the constitution. Those crown-vassals whose attendance in parliament had been dispensed with, continued ever after to be excluded from that assembly, and their posterity remained in the same situation, however great the fortune which they might happen to acquire. On the other hand, those opulent barons who continued, in their own right, to sit in parliament, after the time<252> of Edward the first, retained for the future their seat in the house of peers, notwithstanding all the vicissitudes of their fortune, and whatever might be the degree of poverty to which they were afterwards reduced. Property, the natural source of influence and authority, was, in this manner, detached from political power; while indigence, the parent of servility and dependence, was often invested with privileges which he was not qualified to exercise. The former inconvenience might, in particular cases, be removed by the interposition of the sovereign; who could, at pleasure, create any commoner a member of the house of peers: but the latter admitted of no remedy; since a peer, who had squandered his estate, could not, unless he committed a crime, be deprived of his rank; and since by that rank he was excluded from the usual means of repairing his fortune.*
As there was no regulation concerning the<253> greatest extent of property, from which a baron might be excused from attending in parliament, so there was originally none, with respect to the least, which entitled him to vote for a county-member. All the crown-vassals whatever, whose personal attendance was dispensed with, had of course a title to choose representatives, and were bound by their joint contribution to defray the expence of maintaining them.† But when landed property had undergone so much division, that the possessions of many individuals were become extremely insignificant; more especially after the rear-vassals had been joined with those who held immediately of the crown, in voting for the county-members; the poorer sort of proprietors endeavoured to excuse themselves from contributing to the support of national representatives; and, upon being relieved from that burden, had no longer a pretence for interfering in their election.<254>
By an act of parliament, in the reign of Henry the sixth, it is provided, that the knights of shires shall be chosen by persons residing within the same county, and possessed of lands or tenements, of which the yearly rent, free from all charges, amounts to forty shillings.* By another statute, in the same reign, it is declared, that the voter shall have this estate within the county where the election is made.† Mr. Hume is of opinion, that forty shillings, at that time, making allowance for the alteration in the weight of the coin, and in the price of commodities, was equivalent to near twenty pounds of our present money.
According as parliament had occasion to determine a greater variety of questions, had attained more experience in discussing the business which came before it, the forms of parliamentary procedure became an object of greater attention, and received, as we may easily imagine, a variety of improvements. The appointment of a president, in order to prevent confusion in delivering opinions, to declare the<255> result of a debate, and even, in some measure, to direct the method of handling any question, was a step so necessary in a numerous meeting, that we meet with it as far back as there are any records of the English national council. The lord high steward, as I formerly took notice, was anciently the person who, in absence of the king, presided in that assembly; and when that officer no longer existed, the chancellor, who then rose to the chief consideration in the king’s household, was commonly entrusted with this department. After the division of parliament into two houses, this officer continued in most cases to preside in the house of peers; but in that of the commons, whose deliberations were totally separate, another president became necessary.
From the primitive situation of the commons, who, in all cases, were instructed how to act, they had no opportunity of debating upon any subject; but they required a person to intimate their determinations to the king; and for this purpose they, at first, elected a speaker. The farther the business of that house was extended, the more they ventured to form resolutions without the advice of their con-<256>stituents; the power and privileges of their speaker were enlarged in proportion, and he at length obtained the province of an ordinary president. The first election of this officer, upon record, occurs in the first parliament of Richard the second. From the influence and dignity acquired, in that reign, by the commons, their speaker was exalted to an eminent station; and the persons who enjoyed the office became so conspicuous, as to attract the attention of the public.
One of the principal branches of business which fell under the consideration of parliament was legislation. The first method of conducting a measure of this kind was by a petition from parliament addressed to the king, setting forth some particular grievance or inconvenience, and requesting that it should be removed. To the king belonged the direction both of the executive and judicial powers; and, agreeably to the spirit of a rude age, he was originally under no restraint in the exercise of his prerogative, farther than what might arise from his apprehension of incurring the public displeasure. By a statute it was proposed to limit the former discretionary power of the<257> king, and, out of respect to his dignity, any proposal to this effect was made in the form of a request, that he would consent to the intended regulation. As every new law was, in fact, an innovation of the ancient establishment, it required the agreement of all parties concerned; that is, of the national assembly, including virtually the whole people, and of the king, whose power was to undergo a limitation. When the petition, therefore, had passed the two houses, and had obtained the consent of the king, it became an act of the legislature.
The petitions which had thus been granted, during the course of a parliament, were afterwards digested into the form of a statute; and, as the execution of this task required a degree of legal knowledge, it was devolved upon the principal judges of the kingdom. From the observation, it is said, that mistakes and abuses were committed in a matter of such importance, it was provided, in the reign of Henry the fifth, that the statutes should be drawn up by the judges before the end of each parliament; and, in the reign of Henry the sixth, the present mode of presenting bills to parliament,<258> already digested in the form of a statute, was first introduced.*
For some time after the introduction of the commons into parliament, no notice was taken of them in the character of legislators. The burgesses who composed the first house of commons, were not regarded as the advisers of the crown; and if on any occasion they were capable of extorting a redress of grievances, it was merely by creating an apprehension that they might refuse the supply which was demanded from them. In the beginning of the reign of Edward the third, the commons are mentioned in the character of petitioners; and the statutes are said, in the preamble, to have been ordained “at the request of the commonalty of the realm, by their petition made before the king and his council in the parliament, by the assent of the prelates, earls, barons, and other great men assembled at the said parliament.” The union of the knights of shires, in the same house with the burgesses, contributed quickly to bestow a deliberative voice upon the aggregate body of the commons; and in the reign<259> of Richard the second, we find them interfering in public regulations of the highest importance.* In digesting the= statutes, however, the old stile was continued, until the reign of Edward the fourth; when laws are said to be established by the advice and consent of the lords, at the request of the commons, and by the authority of the same parliament.†
From the primitive method of conducting bills for a new law, in the form of a petition to the king, was derived the custom that they should take their origin from parliament, and that the king should give no opinion concerning them, till they had been approved of in that assembly. As the king had no inclination to limit his own discretionary powers, it was never supposed that a bill for that purpose would be suggested by the crown. All that could be expected from the sovereign, in a matter of this nature, was, that he would be graciously pleased to comply with the desires of his people, communicated to him by the national council: and when a bill had come to be agitated in parliament, it was not yet<260> considered as the request of the nation, and could not, therefore, be regularly presented to the king, for the royal assent, before the two houses had given their authority for that measure.
Such was the original foundation of a maxim, which is now regarded as one of the main pillars of the British constitution; that the king’s negative upon bills shall not be interposed, until they have undergone the final discussion of the two houses of parliament; and, as a consequence of this, that he shall not take notice of any bill depending in parliament, until it shall be communicated to him in the usual and parliamentary manner. The effect of this maxim, in supporting the democratical part of the government, is now universally admitted; but that it was dictated by a regard to the interest of the people, or from the view of encreasing their weight in the exertions of the legislature, there is no reason to believe. It is probable, on the contrary, that the form of procedure above mentioned was thought advantageous, or at least respectful, to the sovereign; as it prevented his being troubled with solicitations to limit his power,<261> until there was an immediate necessity for it. But in reality, this method of conducting the deliberations of the legislature, was not the fruit of any pre-conceived system of policy, nor the result of any claim of right, either upon the part of the king, or of parliament; it arose merely from the nature of the business under consideration, which was most conveniently brought to an issue in that manner; and, as this gave rise to a practice, which was observed with some degree of uniformity, so, in the revolution of ages, the ancient usage, whose utility became daily more observable, was invested with complete legal authority.
It merits attention, however, that what has been observed, concerning the method of ordinary legislation, is not applicable to the imposition of taxes. As the effect of a statute was to ascertain and determine the behaviour of the king, and consequently implied a privilege gained by the people; that of taxation was to bestow some emolument upon the crown, and to lay a correspondent burden upon the nation. An opposite course, therefore, was followed in those two branches of government. The people were understood to be the<262> prime movers in the former; the king, in the latter. The proposal for a new law proceeded upon a petition from parliament to the crown. The proposal for a new tax proceeded upon a request or solicitation of the crown to parliament. Each of these parties having something to bestow which the other wanted, they both became coy and reserved in their turn, and, by their address and perseverance, were enabled to extort reciprocal advantages. When the king was in want of money, he offered his consent to beneficial regulations, upon condition that certain taxes were imposed. When parliament were about to grant supplies to the crown, they took advantage of its necessities, and, as a preliminary article, stipulated the redress of grievances.
Upon this principle, that taxes are granted by parliament, at the desire of the king, is founded a rule, at present, “that the house of commons shall receive no petition for any sum of money relating to the public service, but what is recommended from the crown.” And when a money bill is offered to that house, it is necessary, that the chancellor of the exchequer, or some other<263> officer of the crown, should declare, “that his majesty having been informed of the contents of the said bill, recommends the same to the consideration of the house.”* After this preliminary step, a bill for the imposition of taxes is conducted in the same course, and passes through similar stages, with every other matter which comes under the determination of the legislature.<264>
Alterations in the State of the ordinary Courts of Justice.
The reign of Edward the first is no less distinguished by institutions of great importance relating to the distribution of justice, than by those which have been mentioned with regard to the legislative authority; and in both these particulars we may trace back to this period, the introduction of that regular system which we at present enjoy. The chief of those institutions respecting the exercise of the judicial power, and some of the most remarkable consequences with which they were attended, we shall proceed to examine.
[16. ]Browne Willis (1682–1760): English antiquary and author of History of the Counties, Cities, and Boroughs in England and Wales (1715–16), among other works. Both volumes of this work detail the history of counties, boroughs, and towns, and the representatives they sent to every Parliament from Edward VI to 1715, with only the exception of the twelfth of James I.
[* ]7 Henry IV. c. 15. See a farther provision to the same purpose, II Henry IV. c. 1.
[17. ]Millar is referring to Baron George Lyttelton and his History of the Life of King Henry the Second, 3rd ed., 4 vols. (London, 1769). See vol. 3, bk. 2, 220–25, 373–79.
[* ]See Lord Lyttelton’s History of Henry II.
[† ]Holding of the prince of Wales, is in Scotland viewed in the same light with holding of the king.
[‡ ]It seems at one time to have been intended by Edward I. that personal attendance in parliament should be required from every landed proprietor, whose yearly rent was above 20l. This was the rule prescribed to the sheriffs of counties, in summoning the crown-vassals to an assembly held in the eleventh of that king’s reign. This was also the extent of property in Scotland, which distinguished the great barons, or those who were “constrenzied to come to the parliament or general council.” Parl. 1457, c. 75.
[* ]There occurs, in the reign of Edward IV. an act of parliament, declaring, in the case of George Nevil, duke of Bedford, that his title of honour, as a duke, was void and extinguished, in respect of his poverty, by which he was incapable of supporting his dignity.
[† ]With respect to the contribution laid upon the counties for maintaining the members, see Madox Firma-burgi. It was at first levied by the king’s writ; and afterwards by act of parliament, from the time of Richard II. See 12 Rich. II. c. 12.
[* ]8 Henry VI. c. 7.
[† ]10 Henry VI. c. 2.
[* ]See Blackstone’s Commentaries.
[* ]See Gurdon’s History of Parliament.
[† ]See the preamble to those statutes.
[* ]See Hatsell’s Proceedings in the House of Commons. [[Millar’s source for these passages is John Hatsell, Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons (London, 1785), 3:142.]]