Front Page Titles (by Subject) III: FLEXIBLE AND RIGID CONSTITUTIONS 1 - Studies in History and Jurisprudence, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
III: FLEXIBLE AND RIGID CONSTITUTIONS 1 - Viscount James Bryce, Studies in History and Jurisprudence, vol. 1 
Studies in History and Jurisprudence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1901). 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
FLEXIBLE AND RIGID CONSTITUTIONS1
The Constitutions of Rome and England.
Rome and England are the two States whose constitutions have had the greatest interest for the world, and have exerted the greatest influence upon it. Out of the republic on the Tiber, a city with a rural territory round it no bigger than Surrey or Rhode Island, grew a World Empire, and the framework of that Empire retained till its fall traces of the institutions under which the little republic, circled and threatened by a crowd of hostile States, had risen to show herself the strongest of them all. In England a monarchy, first tribal and then feudal, developed from very small beginnings into a second World Empire of a wholly different type, while at the same time the ancient form of government, through a series of struggles and efforts, guided by an only half-conscious purpose, slowly developed itself into a system monarchical only in name. That system became in the eighteenth century the starting-point for all modern political philosophy2 , and in the nineteenth the model for nearly all the schemes of free representative polity that have arisen in the Old World as well as for many in the newer countries.
It is, however, not merely the range of their influence, nor merely the fact that, as the Roman Constitution worked upon the whole of the ancient, so the English Constitution has worked upon the whole of the modern world, that makes these two systems deserve constant study. Constitutions are the expression of national character, as they in their turn mould the character of those who use them; and the same causes which made both peoples great have made their political institutions also strong and rich, specially full of instruction for all nations in all times. There were in the fifth century bc hundreds of commonwealths in the Mediterranean countries with republican frames of government, many of which bore a general resemblance to that of Rome. There were in the fourteenth century ad several monarchies in Europe similar in their constitutional outlines to that of England, and with what seemed an equal promise of rich and free development. Of the former, Rome alone survived, destroying or absorbing all the rest. Of the latter, that of England is the only one which had at the end of the eighteenth century grown into a system at once broad-based and strong, a system which secured both public order and the freedom of the individual citizen, and in which the people were able to make their voice heard and to influence the march of national policy. All the others had either degenerated into despotisms or remained comparatively crude and undeveloped. Thus when, after the flood of Napoleonic conquest had subsided, the peoples of the European continent began to essay the establishment of free constitutions, they found in that of England the model fittest to be followed, and sought to adapt its principles to their own several conditions.
England, moreover, has been the parent of free governments in a further sense. Though she has not, like Rome, stretched her system of government till it embraced the world, she has reproduced it in those parts of her transoceanic dominions where her children have been able to form self-governing communities. Reduced copies of the British Constitution have been created in seventeen self-governing colonies. Seven of these have in North America been united in a Federation whose frame of government is built on British lines. Six others, in Australia, have been similarly grouped in another Federal Government of a not less distinctively British type. And an independent Republic, far vaster in population than all these colonies put together, has, less closely, but yet in the main and essential points, reproduced the principles, although not the form, of the institutions of the motherland. It is, therefore, to Rome and to England that the eye of the student of political constitutions will most often turn. They represent the most remarkable developments of ordered political life for the ancient and for the modern world respectively. And whoever attempts to classify Constitutions and to note the distinctive features of the principal types they present, will find that it is from Rome and from England that illustrations can most frequently and most profitably be drawn1 .
The Traditional Classification of Constitutions.
The old-fashioned classification of Constitutions which has come down to our own times is based on the distinction of Written and Unwritten Law, itself an ill-expressed and rather confusing distinction, because ius non scriptum is intended to denote customs: and when customs have been recorded in writing, they can hardly continue to be called unwritten. This classification places in the category of Written Constitutions those which are expressly set forth in a specially important document or documents, and in the category of Unwritten those which began, not in formal agreements, but in usage, a usage which lives in men’s recollections, and which, even when it has been to a large extent defined, and secured against error, by being committed to writing, is recorded as embodying that which men have observed, and are deemed likely to continue to observe, not as that to which they have bound themselves formally by a law.
These terms are, however, not happy terms, although the distinction they aim at expressing is a real distinction. The line which they attempt to draw between the two classes of Constitutions is not a clear or sharp line, because in all Written Constitutions there is and must be, as we shall presently see, an element of unwritten usage, while in the so-called Unwritten ones the tendency to treat the written record of custom or precedent as practically binding is strong, and makes that record almost equivalent to a formally enacted law, not to add that Unwritten Constitutions, though they began in custom, always include some statutes. Moreover, these names, while they dwell on a superficial distinction, ignore a more essential one to be presently mentioned. Let us therefore try to find a better classification.
If we survey Constitutions generally, in the past as well as in the present, we find them conforming to one or other of two leading types. Some are natural growths, unsymmetrical both in their form and in their contents. They consist of a variety of specific enactments or agreements of different dates, possibly proceeding from different sources, intermixed with customary rules which rest only on tradition or precedent, but are deemed of practically equal authority. Other Constitutions are works of conscious art, that is to say, they are the result of a deliberate effort on the part of the State to lay down once for all a body of coherent provisions under which its government shall be established and conducted. Such Constitutions are usually comprised in one instrument—possibly, however, in more than one—an instrument solemnly enacted whose form and title distinguish it from ordinary laws. We may provisionally call these two types the Old and the New, because all ancient and mediaeval as well as some few recent Constitutions are of the former kind, while most modern ones belong to the latter. The distinction corresponds roughly to that drawn, in England and America, between common law and statute law, or to the Roman distinction between ius and lex, so that we might describe the types as Common Law Constitutions and Statutory Constitutions respectively. Yet the line of demarcation is not always a plain one. In countries with constitutions of the Common Law type, statutes are frequently passed, declaring or modifying or abolishing antecedent usage, which supersede and replace parts, possibly large parts, of the common law maxims, so that at last most of the leading rules can be found in a few great statutes. On the other hand, the Statutory Constitutions become developed by interpretation and fringed with decisions and enlarged or warped by custom, so that after a time the letter of their text no longer conveys their full effect. It is, therefore, desirable to have some more definite and characteristic test or criterion whereby to mark off the two types which have been just described in general terms.
A Proposed New Classification of Constitutions.
Such a criterion may be found in the relation which each Constitution bears to the ordinary laws of the State, and to the ordinary authority which enacts those laws. Some constitutions, including all that belong to the older or Common Law type, are on the level of the other laws of the country, whether those laws exist in the form of statutes only, or also in the form of recorded decisions defining and confirming a custom. Such constitutions proceed from the same authorities which make the ordinary laws; and they are promulgated or repealed in the same way as ordinary laws. In such cases the term ‘Constitution’ denotes nothing more than such and so many of the statutes and customs of the country as determine the form and arrangements of its political system. And (as will presently appear) it is often difficult to say of any particular law whether it is or is not a part of the political Constitution.
Other constitutions, most of them belonging to the newer or Statutory class, stand above the other laws of the country which they regulate. The instrument (or instruments) in which such a constitution is embodied proceeds from a source different from that whence spring the other laws, is repealable in a different way, exerts a superior force. It is enacted, not by the ordinary legislative authority, but by some higher or specially empowered person or body. If it is susceptible of change, it can be changed only by that authority or by that special person or body. When any of its provisions conflict with a provision of the ordinary law, it prevails, and the ordinary law must give way. These are features, partly political, partly legal, which mark off the two types of Constitution from one another; and although it will appear that in some few cases the question to which type the Constitution of a particular State belongs may be a nice one, still the general legal criteria to be applied are clear and definite. In a State possessing a constitution of the former—the older—type, all laws (excluding of course by-laws, municipal regulations, and so forth) are of the same rank and exert the same force. There is, moreover, only one legislative authority competent to pass laws in all cases and for all purposes. But in a State whose Constitution belongs to the latter—the newer—type, there are two kinds of laws, one kind higher than the other, and more universally potent; and there are likewise two legislative authorities, one superior and capable of legislating for all purposes whatsoever, the other inferior and capable of legislating only so far as the superior authority has given it the right and function to do so.
The difference of these two types is best explained by illustrative instances. At Rome in the second century bc there was but one kind of enactment. All leges passed by the general assembly (whether comitia centuriata or comitia tributa) were of the same generality and the same force. There was but one legislative authority, the people voting in the comitia. So in England, during the last few centuries, there has been but one direct legislative authority, viz. Parliament, which is supreme, and all whose acts bind every citizen everywhere. Accordingly in England the laws called constitutional differ only in respect of their subject-matter from other laws, but are of no higher order. Each of such laws, though we call them in their totality ‘the British Constitution,’ is alterable by the ordinary legislative authority at any moment, just like other laws. Between an Act for making a railway from Manchester to Liverpool and an Act extending the electoral suffrage to all householders or disestablishing the Protestant Episcopal Church in Ireland there is no difference whatever in point of form or in degree of authority. In Switzerland, however, and in France the case is different. The Constitution of the Swiss Confederation is a document which was enacted by the people, and any amendment of which needs to be similarly enacted by them, whereas ordinary laws are passed by the Federal legislature of two Houses1 . The present Constitution of the French Republic was enacted by the two Chambers sitting together as a Constituent Assembly, and can be amended only by the Chambers sitting together in that capacity, after each Chamber has separately resolved that revision is needed, whereas ordinary laws are passed by the two Chambers sitting separately. Thus both in Switzerland and in France there is a distinction in the enacting authority, and therewith also a distinction in the quality and force of the laws enacted, the law which is called the Constitution being entirely superior to the other laws which are passed by the legislature in the ordinary every-day course of its action.
What in the case of each State of the latter or newer type may be the higher (and indeed supreme) authority which is alone competent to enact a Constitution depends upon the provisions of each particular system. It may be the whole people, voting by what is sometimes, though not very happily, called a plebiscite. It may be a body specially elected for the purpose, which dissolves when its work has been completed. It may be certain local bodies, each voting separately on the same instrument submitted to them. It may be, as in the case just mentioned of France, the ordinary legislature sitting in a peculiar way, or acting by a prescribed majority, or rendering several successive votes to the same effect at prescribed intervals of time. These are matters of detail. The essential point is that in States possessing Constitutions of the newer type that paramount or fundamental law which is called the Constitution takes rank above the ordinary laws, and cannot be changed by the ordinary legislative authority.
I have sought in many quarters for names, necessarily metaphorical names, suitable to describe these two types of Constitution. They might be called Moving and Stationary, because those of the older kind are virtually never at rest, but are always undergoing some sort of change, however slight, in the course of ordinary legislation, while those of the newer type abide fixed and stable in their place. Or they might be described, the former as Fluid, and the latter as Solid or Crystallized. When a man desires to change1 the composition of a liquid, he pours in some other liquid or dissolves a solid in the liquid, and shakes the mixture. But he who wishes to alter the composition of a solid must first dissolve it or fuse it, and then, having got it into a liquid or gaseous state, must mix in or extract (as the case may be) the other substance. The analogy between these two processes and those whereby a Constitution of the older and one of the newer type are respectively changed might justify these names. But there is another and simpler metaphor, which, though not quite perfect, seems on the whole preferable. Constitutions of the older type may be called Flexible, because they have elasticity, because they can be bent and altered in form while retaining their main features. Constitutions of the newer kind cannot, because their lines are hard and fixed. They may therefore receive the name of Rigid Constitutions: and by these two names I propose that we shall call them for the purposes of this inquiry. If the characteristics of the two types have not been made sufficiently clear by what has been already said, they will probably become clear in the more detailed examination of them, to which we may now proceed.
I begin with Flexible Constitutions, not only because they are more familiar to students of Roman history and to Englishmen, but also because they are anterior in date. They are indeed the only constitutions which the ancient world possessed, for although, in the absence of Aristotle’s famous treatise On Polities, we know comparatively little about most of the constitutions even of the more famous Greek cities (except Athens), and practically nothing about any others, save those of Rome and Carthage, there are reasons, to be given presently, why we may safely assume that all of them belonged to the Flexible type. But in the modern world they have become rare. Excluding despotically governed countries, such as Russia, Turkey, and Montenegro, there are now only three in Europe, those of the United Kingdom, of Hungary—an ancient and very interesting Constitution, presenting remarkable analogies to that of England—and of Italy, whose constitution, though originally set forth in one document, has been so changed by legislation as to seem now properly referable to the Flexible type. Elsewhere than in Europe, all Constitutions would appear to be Rigid1 .
But a preliminary objection deserves to be first considered. Can we properly talk of a Constitution at all in States which, like Rome and England, draw no formal and technical distinction between laws of different kinds? Since there was at Rome and is in England but one legislative authority, and all its statutes are of equal force, how distinguish those which relate to the general frame of government from those which embody the minor details of administration? The great Reform Act of ad 1832, for instance—and the same remark applies to the parliamentary reform Acts of 1867 and 1884—was clearly a constitutional statute. But it contained minor provisions which no one could call fundamental, and some of which were soon changed by other statutes which would scarcely be described as constitutional. There are many statutes of which, as of the Municipal Reform Act of 1834 (and I may add as of the Local Government Acts of 1888 and 1894), it would be hard to say whether they are or are not constitutional statutes, and there are statutes which would not be termed constitutional (such as the Scottish Universities Act of 1852), which have in fact modified such a momentous constitutional document as the Act of Union with Scotland (5 Anne, c. 6, art. xxv).
Technically, therefore, we cannot draw a distinction between constitutional and other laws. There was in strictness no Roman Constitution. There is no British Constitution. That is to say, there are no laws which can be definitely marked off as Fundamental Laws, defining and distributing the powers of government, the mode of creating public authorities, the rights and immunities of the citizen. That which we call the Constitution of the Roman State, that which we now call the Constitution of the United Kingdom, is a mass of precedents, carried in men’s memories or recorded in writing, of dicta of lawyers or statesmen, of customs, usages, understandings and beliefs bearing upon the methods of government, together with a certain number of statutes, some of them containing matters of petty detail, others relating to private just as much as to public law, nearly all of them presupposing and mixed up with precedents and customs, and all of them covered with a parasitic growth of legal decisions and political habits, apart from which the statutes would be almost unworkable, or at any rate quite different in their working from what they really are. The most skilful classifier could not draw up a list that would bear criticism of Roman or of British statutes embodying the Constitution of either State: and even if such a list were prepared, the statutes so classified would fail to contain some cardinal doctrines and rules. Such a list, for instance, of British statutes would contain nothing about the Cabinet, and very little about the relations of the House of Commons to the House of Lords. On such subjects as the control of the House of Commons over foreign affairs, the obligation of the Crown to take, or the possible right of the Crown in certain cases to overrule, the advice of its ministers, no light would be thrown. Yet the statutes form the clearest and most manageable part of the materials which make up the British Constitution. Those other materials which have been referred to are by their very nature vague and indeterminate, unsusceptible of classification, and in many instances incapable of being set forth in definite rules1 . A certain part of them is already, or is on the way to become, obsolete. Another part is matter of controversy between different schools of jurists or historians. The same thing was true of Rome, for at Rome it would seem that no statute defined the power of the consuls, nor their relation to the Senate, nor set limits to the quasi-legislative authority of that great magistrate the Praetor. So far from being clearly ascertained were the powers of the Senate, that in Cicero’s time it was matter of constitutional debate whether its decrees had or had not the full force of law1 ; and men took one view or the other according to their political proclivities, just as in England men at one time differed regarding the right of the House of Lords to deal with money bills.
These facts are of course obvious enough to-day to every English lawyer, and indeed to those laymen who have some tincture of historical or legal knowledge. It is otherwise with the general public. To them the word Constitution seems to represent something definite and positive. Much of the current talk about the danger of altering the British Constitution2 seems to spring from the notion that the name represents a concrete thing, an ascertainable and positive definite body of rules laid down in black and white. The Romans had no single word to convey what we mean by ‘Constitution.’ Even in the last days of the Republic Cicero had to use such phrases as forma, or ratio, or genus rei publicae, or leges et instituta; and what we call ‘constitutional law’ appears in the jurists of the Empire as ius quod ad statum rei Romanae spectat3 .
The objection, however, which we have been considering, goes only to misconceptions that may arise from the word ‘Constitution,’ not to the use of the word itself, for some such word is indispensable. The thing exists, and there must be a name to describe it. A thing is not the less real because its limits cannot be sharply defined. A hill is a hill and a plain a plain, though you cannot fix the point where the hill subsides into the plain. The aggregate of the laws and customs through and under which the public life of a State goes on may fitly be called its Constitution; and even the still vaguer phrases, ‘Spirit of the Constitution,’ ‘Principles of the Constitution,’ may properly be used, since they too describe a general quality or tendency pervading the whole mass of laws and customs that rule a State which gives to this mass a character differing from that of the Constitution of any other State; just as each great nation has what we call a National Character, though this character can be more easily recognized than defined.
The Origin of Flexible Constitutions.
Now let us return to consider the history and the attributes of Flexible Constitutions. We have seen that they are older than those of the Rigid type. It may be thought that this is so because they are more compatible with a rude condition of society, and because springing out of custom, always the first source of law, they are the simplest and most obvious form which regular political society can take. This is true, but does not fully explain the phenomena.
A Constitution properly so called is a frame of political society organized through and by law, that is to say, one in which law has established permanent institutions with recognized functions and definite rights. Now such forms of organized political society appear first in small communities, whether Urban, like the City States of Greece, or Rural, like those of early England or mediaeval Switzerland. Wherever in the earlier stages of civilization we find large communities, like Egypt, Assyria, Peru, Russia in the sixteenth century, we find that a tribal organization has passed into a despotism1 , apparently without passing through the intermediate stage of a more or less restricted monarchy. Now in a small area men usually organize themselves in a regular community by vesting legal authority in a mass meeting of the citizens. The Folk Mot of our Teutonic ancestors, like the still surviving Landesgemeinde of Uri or Appenzell, represents in a rural community what the ἀγορά represents in Homeric Greece, what the ἐκκλησία represents in the later Greek cities, and what the comitia represent at Rome; I might add, what (in a more rudimentary form) the popular meeting represents to-day in Albania and what the similar meeting called a Pitso represents among the Basuto and Bechuana Kafirs. Such meetings, like the New England Town Meeting, are Primary, not Representative. They consist of all the freemen within the community, though, in their earlier stage, it is in practice the leading men who determine the action of the whole assembly. They make such laws as there are. Being not only the supreme, but the only legislative authority, they can at any moment change the laws they deem fundamental, if there are any such laws, for the more backward races remain in the stage of mere custom, and do not reach the conception of a fundamental law. Whether the system of their government is formally embodied in one group of specially important laws, or, as more often happens, is left to be collected from a number of enactments connected and supplemented by usages, that system remains on a level with all the other laws and usages, because it emanates from the same source, viz. the governing primary assembly. It is not till the growth of some scheme of representation has made familiar the distinction between the authority of the people themselves and that of their representatives that truly Rigid Constitutions appear, for it is not till then that a method suggests itself of enacting a kind of law which shall be superior to that which the ordinary legislative body creates. Accordingly the Primary Assembly, whether in ancient Greece and Italy or in mediaeval Europe, works for some time, and may create by its constant action what is practically a Constitution (i.e. a set of established rules embodying and directing the practice of government), before the idea of a regular political Constitution emerges. That idea comes into being when in the progress of political thought and of jurisprudence men begin to distinguish between laws and customs which relate to the structure of the State and the management of its affairs and those which relate to other matters, such as the civil rights of individuals; and when they also distinguish between rules and usages which are fixed and settled, because generally observed and regularly applied to recurrent facts, and the particular decisions taken in particular cases. In this sense the Romans may have begun to feel they had a Constitution before they had gone far in the conquest of Italy. Our English ancestors reached the same consciousness in the fourteenth century, when much stress began to be laid upon political precedents, and Parliament, by this time a Representative body, and thereby entitled to speak for the nation, had definitely established its rights as against the Crown1 . The Confirmation of the Charters together with the statute De Tallagio Non Concedendo of ad 1297 is often taken as marking the first form of the plainly settled English Constitution, but perhaps the successful resistance of Parliament to King Edward the Third sixty years later is a better point to choose. Anyhow the language of Chief Justice Fortescue (under Henry the Sixth) shows how clearly drawn the main lines of the Constitution had become in his time. When this stage has been reached, efforts are sometimes made to give to these constitutional rules, or to certain among them, an exceptional degree of force and permanence. Such rules may be embodied in a document of special sanctity; or they may be protected by oaths. But the creation of a truly Rigid Constitution comes later, when some system of representation has appeared. I shall presently return to examine the causes which produce it.
The Strength and Weakness of Flexible Constitutions.
The names ‘Flexible’ or ‘Fluid,’ which I have suggested for Constitutions of this type, seem to suggest that they are unstable, with no guarantee of solidity and permanence. They are in a state of perpetual flux, like the river of Heraclitus, into which a man cannot step twice. Not only are new laws constantly passed which more or less affect them, but their mere working tends to alter them daily. Just as every man’s character is being every day insensibly modified by the acts he does, by the thoughts he cherishes, by the emotions which each new experience of life brings with it, so every decade saw the Constitution of Rome, and sees the Constitution of England, slightly different at the end of even so short a period from what it was at the beginning. Even a deliberately conservative policy cannot arrest this process of variation. If the change does not for a time appear in the laws, it is in progress in the minds of men, and may have all the more violent a working when it begins to tell upon legislation. A reaction, such as that carried through by Lucius Cornelius Sulla at Rome, or that which followed the fall of the Cromwellian Protectorate in England, is almost as fertile in change as a time of revolution. The past can never be effaced, since the recollection of it is an element in shaping the future, and the measures taken to restore a status quo ante always contain much which was not in that status quo ante, much which is in itself new, and the source of further novelties. The only cases in which constitutional development can be said to stop are those where, as at Venice and in some of the cities of post-mediaeval Switzerland, an oligarchy gets control of the government, and, in extinguishing the spirit and the habits of freedom, arrests the natural processes of movement and development until some powerful neighbour overthrows the State, or internal economic changes induce a revolution. Even under a despotism, the system of government changes insensibly from century to century, as it did in the old French monarchy, and as it has recently done among a people so stagnant as the Turks. But despotic systems, being scarcely classifiable as Constitutions, do not come within our present inquiry.
These things being so, it seems natural to assume that Flexible (the so-called ‘unwritten’) Constitutions, having been enacted and being alterable by the ordinary legislative authority, and not being contained in any specially sacred instrument, will in fact be subject to frequent and large changes, and will moreover be so readily transgressed in practice, that they will furnish an insufficient guarantee for public order and for the protection of private rights.
The facts, however, do not support this assumption. Let us take our two typical instances, Rome and England. The Roman Constitution is an extreme case of a Frame of Government capable of being changed in the quickest and simplest way. Nothing was needed but a vote of the comitia, on the proposition of a competent magistrate, accompanied by the silence of the tribunes. No doubt any single tribune could paralyse the action of the comitia, but in such a community as Rome became in the later days of the Republic it must often have been easy for those who desired a change to ‘get at,’ or to remove, an obnoxious tribune. Yet the Constitution of Rome, regarded on its legal side, changed comparatively little in the three centuries that lie between the Licinian laws and the age of Sulla, for most of those deviations from ancient usage which, as we can now see, were working towards its fall, were in form quite legal, being merely occasional resorts to expedients which the Constitution recognized, though they had been more rarely and more cautiously used in older and better days. So in England, the exercise of the sovereign power is lodged in an assembly which can, on occasion, act with extraordinary promptitude, as when some while ago (April 9, 1883) the Explosives Act was passed through the House of Commons in a few hours (the standing orders having been suspended), and having been forthwith passed by the House of Lords also, received the royal assent next day. So the most sacred rules and principles of the Constitution might with perfect legality of form be abolished—Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement included—just as quickly as the Explosives Act was passed. Yet the main lines of the English frame of government have since 1689 and 1701 remained legally the same; and the most important changes made since the latter year have been effected after long and strenuous controversies1 . We all know how hard it is to secure even small constitutional improvements, such as the abolition of the provision, confessedly useless and certainly troublesome, which obliges a member of the House of Commons to vacate his seat and seek re-election on his being appointed a Minister of the Crown.
One explanation of this apparent paradox is (though sometimes neglected) obvious enough. The stability of any constitution depends not so much on its form as on the social and economic forces that stand behind and support it; and if the form of the constitution corresponds to the balance of those forces, their support maintains it unchanged. Two other reasons deserve to be more fully stated.
A Flexible or Common Law Constitution sometimes owes its stability to the very conditions which have enabled it to grow out of isolated laws and mere usages into a firmly settled Frame of Government. There have no doubt been many cases, such as those of most of the Greek cities of antiquity, where the eager restless spirit of the people and the violence of faction never allowed any system of government to last long enough to strike deep root. Such constitutions were often enacted all in one piece, and would have been made Rigid, had the citizens who enacted them known how to make them so. They were seldom the growth of long-continued usage. But the best instances of Flexible Constitutions have been those which grew up and lived on in nations of a conservative temper, nations which respected antiquity, which valued precedents, which liked to go on doing a thing in the way their fathers had done it before them. This type of national character is what enables the Flexible Constitution to develop; this supports and cherishes it. The very fact that the legal right to make extensive changes has long existed, and has not been abused, disposes an assembly to be cautious and moderate in the use of that right. Those who have always enjoyed power are least likely to abuse it1 . This truth might be illustrated both from Rome and from England; and, indeed, from Switzerland also, though the argument which tries to prove the stupid conservatism of democracy from the habits of rural communities in the last-named country has been pressed too far by Sir H. Maine and others, since in rural communities, where nearly every one is a citizen, and well off, and most men about equally well off, the usual motives for making political changes do not exist.
A further reason may be found in the fact that a constitution which has come down in the form of a mass of laws, precedents and customs is not only more mysterious, and therefore more august, to the minds of the ordinary citizens than one they can read in a document, but is not felt by them to lie at their mercy and to live only by their pleasure. A constitution embodied in a document which they have seen drafted, and have enacted by their votes, has no element of antiquity or mystery. It issues from the sovereignty of the people, it reminds them of their sovereignty, it suggests to them nothing more exalted. Perhaps it has been the work of one party in the State; and if that party becomes discredited, it may share the discredit. The dignity which a remote and half mythic origin gives to constitutions, as it does to royal families, was in the ancient world and the Middle Ages enhanced by religious associations. In Greece and Italy the tutelary deities of the city watched over the oldest laws. In mediaeval countries the order of the State seemed an expression of the Will of God. Although these sentiments have vanished from the modern world, the fact that an old constitution represents a long course of progressive development, or, to use a somewhat vulgarized term, of evolution, gives it some claim on the respect of imaginative or philosophical minds. These sources of moral strength have been found sufficient in many countries to secure an enduring life for political institutions which the people, or a legislative body, had it in their power to change, and which, in some instances, ought to have been replaced by other institutions more suited to their altered environment.
It would, therefore, be an error to pronounce Flexible Constitutions unstable. Their true note, their distinctive merit, is to be elastic. They can be stretched or bent so as to meet emergencies, without breaking their framework; and when the emergency has passed, they slip back into their old form, like a tree whose outer branches have been pulled on one side to let a vehiclepass. Just because their form is not rigidly fixed, a temporary change is not felt to be a serious change. The sentiment of respect for the established order is not shaken. The old habits are maintained, and the machine, modified perhaps in some detail which the mass of the people scarcely notice, seems to go on working as before.
Whether the working is really the same is another matter. During two centuries and a half, from Edward the Third till James the First, the Constitution of England remained in its legal aspect scarcely altered. Though at some moments within that period Parliament seemed to have mightily gained on the Crown, and at others the Crown seemed to be dominating Parliament, yet it was, until the Civil War, doubtful whether any permanent change had been effected. From the days of Queen Anne to those of William the Fourth the Constitution preserved a legal character practically the same. But it had been altered essentially in substance. So we may say that while the Flexible character of a constitution sometimes enables it to recover from shocks without injury, that character sometimes conceals the effects of a shock, since these effects may take the form of changes of usage and changes of opinion among the citizens which have not been expressed, perhaps hardly can be expressed, in a definite legal form. The relations to one another of the two Houses of the British Parliament, and the relations of Parliament to the now self-governing British Colonies, are instances in point.
No constitution illustrates these phenomena better than did that of Rome. It was a complicated piece of work, made of many pieces, firmly attached, yet each piece playing freely. It had to be bent, twisted, stretched in many ways, under the pressure of divers exigencies. But it stood the strain of being bent or stretched, and when the force that had bent it was withdrawn, could return so nearly to its original shape as to seem to have never been disturbed. The change from consuls to military tribunes, the frequent appointment of a dictator, the memorable episode of the Decemvirate, the creation of new magistracies, even the admission of new and sometimes large masses of persons to citizenship and voting power, and the adaptation of its old machinery to the new task of governing conquered provinces, did not, during several centuries, permanently disturb its balance or seriously shake its main principles. Suspensions of the ordinary rights of the private citizen, extensions of the ordinary powers of the magistrate, which would have ruined most States by setting dangerous precedents, were at Rome found harmless because law and custom recognized them as expedients available in case of need, and, in legalizing them, took away their revolutionary character. Thus, being parts of the Constitution, though parts to be used only in emergencies, they did not shock conservative sentiment nor encourage attempts pernicious to freedom—did not, that is to say, until at last the character of the city population had so completely changed and the dominions of the Republic had so prodigiously grown that the old Constitution was obviously out of date, unfit for work immensely heavier than that for which it had been constructed.
A Greek city, or an Italian city of the Middle Ages, which delivered itself into the hands of a dictator when pressed by its neighbours, almost invariably found that it had given itself a master who refused to resign his power when the danger was past, but continued to rule as a Tyrant or Signore. This happened not merely because the people were passionate and the leading men ambitious, for there was plenty both of passion and of ambition among the Romans, but largely because in those cities no provision was made for such emergencies; so that when it became necessary to place extraordinary powers in one or few hands, the Constitution received a violent wrench, from which it might not recover. At Rome the contingency had been foreseen, and the mode of meeting it was legal. A spirit had been formed among the body of the people as well as among the leading men which held ambition in check. The dictator was not intoxicated by his elevation. The citizens did not lose their faith in the soundness of their system; and it justified their confidence.
The elasticity of the British Constitution appears in somewhat different features, less striking perhaps than those which mark Rome, but not less useful. We English appoint no dictators, seeing that we have always fortunately had a permanent head of the Executive, though latterly one rather nominal than real, and have seldom been exposed to the dangers which the city-states of the ancient world had to fear. But we have kept in reserve a wide and vague prerogative, which, though it cannot in practice be put in force against the will of the representative House of Parliament, may be employed to effect things far more important than many other things for which express legislative authority is required. The control of the army and navy and the control of foreign policy are instances. There are, moreover, ways in which the normal powers of the Executive may be immensely increased. When a statute, such as the Habeas Corpus Act, is suspended, or when a Vote of Credit for a very large sum of money is passed, the control of the ordinary law and courts in the one case, and the control of the House of Commons in the other case, over the Ministers of the Crown, is for the time being (especially if Parliament is not sitting) and for some purposes practically suspended; and the Sovereign (or rather the Cabinet) of to-day is almost replaced in the position of the last Tudor or the first Stuart. Stringent measures to repress disorder may be taken at home, military operations may be threatened or begun abroad which would be beyond the legal competence of the Crown in the former case and its ordinary discretionary powers and functions, as fixed by custom, in the latter. So too when it became necessary in view, not of an emergency, but of the general convenience of administration, to delegate to inferior authorities the supreme legislative power of Parliament, advantage was taken of the old royal prerogative and of that ancient body the Privy Council. Parliament gave power to the Crown to issue Orders in Council dealing with large classes of matters which must otherwise have been dealt with by statute; and these Orders take effect sometimes at once, sometimes when a certain period has elapsed during which they have lain before Parliament and received from it no disapproval. In this way a vast mass of secondary legislation is annually enacted which, though it does not directly issue from Parliament, carries parliamentary authority, and does not infringe the principle that Parliament is the only true source of law. And, similarly, out of the ancient judicial functions of the Crown and of the Council which advised the Crown, functions which a century ago seemed to be lapsing into desuetude, there has been evolved a new system of judicature. A body called the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, somewhat resembling the Consistory of the Roman Emperors, has been created, and now acts as a Supreme Court of Appeal for all the transmarine possessions of Britain, whether Indian or Colonial.
The merit of this elastic quality in such Constitutions as the Roman and the British is that it affords a means of preventing or minimizing revolutions by meeting them halfway. Let us note how each kind of Constitution, the Rigid and the Flexible, behaves when a serious crisis arrives, in which one section of the nation is bent on changing the Constitution, and the other on maintaining it. A Rigid Constitution, if the legal means provided for altering it cannot be used for the want of the prescribed legal majority, resists the pressure. It may of course resist successfully, but if so, probably after a conflict which has shaken the State and excited hostility to it in the minds of a large part of the people. It may, however, if the assailing forces are very strong, be broken, and if so, broken past mending. A Flexible Constitution, however, being more easily and promptly alterable, and being usually a less firmly welded and cohesive structure, can bend without breaking, can be modified in such a way as to satisfy popular demands, can escape revolution by the practical submission of one of the contending forces in the particular dispute, that submission being recognized as a precedent which will be followed, even though it has not been embodied in any law or other formal document. The extinction of the right once claimed by the House of Lords to alter money bills is one instance. Or it may be made to evolve some organ which, though really new, conceals its novelty by keeping some of the old colour, and thus it may continue to work with no palpable breach of continuity. The knowledge that a constitution can be changed without any tremendous effort helps to make a party of revolution less violent and a party of resistance less stubborn, disposing both to some compromise. At Rome the resort to the appointment of military tribunes with consular power when the plebs demanded, and the patricians would not yet consent to the election of a plebeian Consul, delayed revolution till opinion had so changed that the danger of revolution had passed away. So, later, the compromise by which a Praetor was created with the functions of a Consul but with a special range of duties appeased conservative feeling and smoothed the passage from the old order to the new. The history of the English Constitution is a history of continual small changes, no single one of which, hardly even the Bill of Rights at the time of the so-called Revolution, or the Reform Act of 1832, made the system look substantially different. Something no doubt was cut away, and something was added, but the structure as a whole seemed the same, because far more of the old was left than there was added of the new.
The two main processes which have turned the government of England from the monarchy of the Tudors into what may be called the plutocratic democracy of to-day have been the limitation of the royal prerogative and the transference of the right of suffrage from a few to the multitude. Both processes have gone on slowly, by a succession of steps, each comparatively small, but all in the same direction. Accordingly the strife of parties has been mitigated by the existence at all, or nearly all, moments, of a large body of persons who desired reform, but only a moderate reform. They are the persons who impose compromise on the extremists to the right and to the left of them, and they can do so because the Constitution permits small reforms to be easily effected. The party of change, which would be a party of revolution if it was obliged to have large changes or none, is apt to be divided, and its more moderate section is, or soon passes into, a party only of reform. The English Chartists of 1840-50 caused some alarm. But between them and the old Constitutional Whigs there were several sections of opinion passing by imperceptible gradations into one another; and when it was seen that the current was setting towards changes approximating to those which the Chartists demanded, their less violent men were by degrees reabsorbed into the general body of the Whig or Liberal party, the latter at the same time moving with the times; and some of those changes, in particular vote by ballot, were ultimately obtained with no great friction.
It must nevertheless be remembered that in the history of most States a crisis is apt to arrive when elasticity becomes a danger, in that it tempts people to abuse the facility for change. There is no better sign of strength in a man’s physical constitution than his being able to make some short, sudden, and violent effort without suffering afterwards from doing so; and there is nothing of which the happy possessor of such strength is more proud. But those men who have reached middle life are aware that the temptation to strain one’s strength in this exultant spirit is perilous. Repeated impunity is apt to encourage a man to go on trying experiments when the conditions are perhaps less favourable, or when the reserve of force is less abundant than it was in youth. The story goes that the famous Milo of Croton, passing alone through a forest, saw an oak into which woodmen who were preparing to fell it had driven wedges. Pulling out the wedges, he tried to rive it asunder. But he had no longer the fullness of his youthful strength. The returning tree caught him by the hands and held him fast till he died. In our own days Captain Webb, stimulated by his feat in swimming across the English Channel, sought still bolder exploits, and perished in the Whirlpool Rapid below Niagara Falls. So the Romans, having many a time given exceptional powers for special occasions to their magistrates, found at last that they had created precedents which enabled the old free Constitution to be in substance overthrown. Sulla became a dictator of a new kind. After a while he resigned his power, but the example showed that monarchy was not far off. Julius Caesar also received exceptional authority, and used it to form an army which extinguished the Republic. The dictatorship he had held passed under other forms into permanent absolutism, and what was practically a revolution was ultimately carried through with a certain deference to the old constitutional forms. In England, Parliament, during the sixteenth century, once or twice gave powers to the Crown which brought the Constitution into danger. In the seventeenth century the monarchy was abolished, and a Protectorate set up by revolutionary methods. This was the result of a war which had destroyed a vital part of the old machine, much to the regret of most of those who had in the first instance taken up arms. We have never since that date (except under King James the Second) seen the Constitution in any real danger.
It is, however, often suggested that the enormous power possessed by Parliament might be used to upset fundamental institutions with reckless haste, and that it might therefore be prudent to impose restrictions on parliamentary action. And those who note the way in which Parliament bends and staggers under the increasing burden of work laid on it, coupled with the inadequacy of its rules to secure the prompt dispatch of business1 , have frequently predicted that the House of Commons may one day deliver itself into the hands of the Cabinet, the power of party organization having grown so strong that the head of each Cabinet will be deemed a sort of dictator, drawing his authority, nominally of course, from the House of Commons, but really from a so-called direct ‘mandate’ of the electors2 . Others draw a yet more horrible picture of a party machine, which they call the Caucus, dictating a policy to the electors on the one hand, and to the Cabinet on the other, itself reigning in the spirit of a tyrant, but under the forms of the Constitution. If the British Constitution, as we have hitherto known it, should perish, there is little reason to fear it will do so in this eminently ignoble fashion3 .
When Flexible Constitutions come to an end, they do so in one of two ways. Sometimes they pass into an autocracy, either dying a violent death by revolution, or expiring in a more natural manner through the extension and development, under legal forms, of one of their organs, to a point at which it practically supersedes and replaces the other organs. Sometimes, on the other hand, they pass into Rigid Constitutions. The causes which induce this latter change belong, however, to the examination of that second type of Constitution; and will be considered when we have surveyed some further features characteristic of the Flexible type.
Aristocracies and Flexible Constitutions.
Flexible Constitutions have a natural affinity for an aristocratic structure of government. I do not mean merely that they spring up at times when power is in the hands of the well-born or rich, for the stage of society in which constitutions, properly so called, begin to exist, is nearly always oligarchic, even if there be a monarch at the head of it. But there is a sort of natural attraction between an aristocracy and an undefined and elastic form of government, as there has begun to be, in most modern countries, a natural repulsion between such a form and a pure democracy. It needs a good deal of knowledge, skill and experience to work a Flexible Constitution safely, and it is only in the educated classes that these qualities can be looked for. The masses of a modern nation seldom appreciate the worth of ancient usages and forms, or the methods of applying precedents. In small democratic communities, such as are the Forest Cantons of Switzerland, this attachment to custom may be found, because there traditions have passed into the life of the people, and the maintenance of ancient forms has become a matter of local pride. But in a large nation it is only educated men who can comprehend the arrangements of a complicated system with a long history, who can follow its working, and themselves apply its principles to practice. The uninstructed like something plain, simple and direct. The arcana imperii inspire suspicion, a suspicion seldom groundless, because the initiated are apt to turn a knowledge of secrets to selfish purposes. Now a Common Law Constitution with its long series of precedents, some half obsolete, some of doubtful interpretation, is full of arcana. Even to-day, though the process of clarification and simplification has gone on fast since 1832, dark places are still left in the British Constitution.
There is, however, a further reason why Common Law Constitutions accord better with aristocratic than with democratic sentiment. They allow a comparatively wide discretion to the chief officials of State, such as the higher magistrates at Rome and the Ministers of the Crown in England. The functions of these officials are not very strictly defined, because legal enactments, though they limit power in certain directions (far more rigidly now in England than was the case at Rome), do not draw a completely closed circle round it, but leave certain gaps, through which tradition and precedent permit it, so to speak, to shoot out and play freely. Aristocracies prize this latitude. They prize it because it is mainly to prominent members of their class that offices fall, and these persons are then able to act with freedom, to assert their individual wills, to carry out their views unchecked by the dread of transgressing a statute. On the other hand, the less conspicuous members of the upper class have at any rate little reason to fear harm from the wide authority of the officials, because their social position, and the influence of their family connexions, protect them from arbitrary treatment. The masses of the people have neither advantage. Very few of them can hope to enjoy power. Any one of them may suffer from an exercise of it, which, because not positively illegal, gives him no claim for redress. They have, therefore, everything to gain and nothing to lose if they can restrict it by those definite and fixed limitations which are congenial to Rigid rather than to Flexible Constitutions. And in the history of most peoples a time arrives when, the love of equality being reinforced by the distrust of authority, there is a movement to cut down the powers of the rulers to the lowest point compatible with the safety of the State. The extent to which this process has gone is in any nation a fair test of the gains made by the democratic principle upon the aristocratic. But in this respect the course things have taken in England has been very unlike that which they took at Rome. One of the first events which the authentic history of Rome records is the effort of the plebeians to secure a limitation of the power of the Consuls by having statutes passed to define it. The effort failed. It is characteristic of the Romans that it should have failed. Statutes, known afterwards as the Laws of the Twelve Tables, were enacted, statutes which doubtless on the whole improved the position of the plebeians. But the powers of the Consuls remained wide and legally indefinite down till the time when life went out of them under the shadow of an autocrat who ruled for life. Limited of course these powers had to be as time went on and the popular element in the constitution was developed, but the limitations were imposed, not by narrowing the powers themselves, but by the introduction of new factors. The two Consuls, being chosen from a circle less narrow than in the old days, were more frequently at variance with one another. Other officials were set up over against the Consuls, who could (if they pleased) interfere to restrain the Consuls. And thirdly, the permanent non-representative Council of Elders (the Senate), composed mainly of ex-officials, increased its influence, and could generally hold the magistrates in check. Things went very differently in England. There the prerogative of the Crown was the force of which the nobles as well as the commons stood in dread, and they united in the effort to restrict it down till a time when the commons were strong enough to dispense with the help of more than a section of the landowning magnates. In steadily reducing the prerogative of the Crown, in lopping off some parts of it and strictly defining others, they restricted the powers of the Crown and its Ministers, until at last they had so firmly established the right of the representative assembly to prescribe to the Crown what persons it should employ as Ministers that the old motive for limiting the prerogative vanished. Those who had been feared as masters were now trusted as servants. The people no longer disliked what was left of the royal prerogative, because their representatives could control the persons who wielded it, and the members of the ruling assembly began to feel that it was in the public interest, and not against their own personal interest, to maintain the powers of Ministers, because many things could be done more easily and more promptly through these powers than by the passing of statutes for dealing with each matter in detail. There may even be a danger, in this new condition of things, that the royal prerogative will be used too freely, because that prerogative now means the will of the leaders of the parliamentary majority, whose action might at a moment of excitement be applauded and sustained by their followers even should it transcend the limits fixed by constitutional usage.
It has been already remarked that the system of checks in the Roman Constitution differed essentially from that employed in the English. Every constitution must of course have a system of checks, else it will quickly perish, or, to vary the metaphor, it must so dispose the ballast as to enable the vessel to recover her equilibrium after a violent oscillation. At Rome the checks consisted in the coexistence of various magistrates who could arrest one another’s action, and in a permanent Senate with a large though somewhat ill-defined control, while the popular assembly, in theory omnipotent, was in fact restrained by a number of curious features in its procedure which made it much less effective than was the primary popular assembly in most of the Greek republics. It could act only when convoked by a magistrate, could have its action stopped by another magistrate, and was frequently overreached or circumvented by the Senate. In England, on the other hand, the Crown, which before the conflicts of the seventeenth century had been the predominant power which needed to be checked, and which frequently was checked, by Parliament, becomes after that time capable only of occasionally baffling (and that less and less as time went on) the now predominant Parliament, while the restraint on hasty or violent action by Parliament was found, partly in the division of Parliament into two Houses, and partly, especially after the Upper House had begun to lose moral weight, and had passed more and more under the control of one party in the State, in the fact that an assembly of representatives, nearly all of whom belonged to the wealthier and so-called upper classes, was pervaded by a conservative temper. A representative body, the members of which are mostly satisfied with the world as it is, and who are sufficiently instructed to respect the traditions of administration, is, except where a question arises which stirs class passions, less prone to ill-considered action than is an assembly of all the citizens, such as was the Ecclesia of Athens or Syracuse, where the large majority were humble folk, and where the sympathy of numbers made the ascendency of emotion over reason doubly dangerous. Thus, as compared with the democracies of the city-states of antiquity, the representative character of the assemblies of modern Europe has been a moderating factor. But these assemblies are now changing their character, as the countries in which they exist have changed. The progress of science has, through the agency of railways and telegraphs, of generally diffused education, and of cheap newspapers, so brought the inhabitants of large countries into close and constant relations with one another and with their representatives, that the conditions of a small city-state are being reproduced. A man living at Kirkwall knows what happened last night in London, eight hundred miles away, sooner and more fully than a man living in Marathon (distant eight hours’ walking) knew what had happened the day before in Athens. The same news reaches all the citizens at the same time, the same emotion affects all simultaneously, and is intensified by reverberation through the press. The nation is, so to speak, compressed into a much smaller space than it filled three centuries ago, and has become much more like a primary assembly than it was then. If concurrently with this change there should come, as some presage, a closer and more constant control of the members of the representative assembly by their constituents, the representatives becoming rather delegates acting under instructions than men chosen to speak and vote because they are deemed trusty and intelligent, much of the moderative value which the representative system has possessed will disappear.
It need not be thought that in England at least there is any immediate risk of evils to be expected from the change which has been noted. Representatives have not yet become delegates, and if they do, it will be rather their own fault than that of the electors, for the electors respect courage and value independence. In England the power of party organizations over constituencies and members, if it grows, grows slowly. It is, in fact, not so much these organizations as small sections of opinion or organized ‘interests,’ seeking some advantage for themselves, that try to terrorize candidates. There is still a valuable check on possible recklessness on the part of Parliament in the fact that it is (unlike some popular assemblies) guided by responsible Ministers, who have hitherto seldom been mere demagogues, and who have experience behind them, prospects of future dignity before them, and the opinion of their own class around them. All that I wish to point out is that a change has passed on the conditions under which representative assemblies act, which in making them more swiftly responsive to public sentiment, increases some of the risks always incident to popular government. History has not spoken her last word about Flexible Constitutions. Rather may she be opening a new stage in their development.
The Influence of Constitutions on the Mind of a Nation.
We have been considering what are the conditions present in a nation which make it prefer a particular kind of constitution. Now let us approach the converse question, and inquire what will be the influence on the political ideas and habits of a nation of these Constitutions of the Common Law, or Flexible type, and what are the features of national character which will enable such constitutions to live on and prosper.
Forms of government are causes as well as effects, and give an intellectual and moral training to the peoples that live under them, as the character of a parent affects the children of the household. Now the Common Law Constitution, with its complexity, its delicately adjusted and balanced machinery, its inconsistencies, its nuances—one is driven to French because there is no English word to express the tendency of a tendency—its abundance of unsettled points, in which a refined sense can perceive what the decision ought in each case to be without being able to lay down a plain and positive rule—such a constitution must undoubtedly polish and mature in the governing class a sort of tact and judgement, a subtlety of discrimination and a skill in applying old principles to new combinations of facts, which make it safe for a people to leave wide powers to their magistrates or their governing assembly. A sense grows up among those who have to work the constitution as to what is and is not permissible under it, and that which cannot be expressed in the stiff phrases of a code is preserved in the records of precedents and shines through the traditions which form the minds of the rulers. This kind of constitution lives by what is called its Spirit. ‘The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.’
Evidently, however, it is only among certain nations with certain gifts that such a constitution will come to maturity and become a subject for science as well as a work of art. Three things seem needful. One is legalmindedness, a liking and a talent for law. Another is a conservative temper, by which I mean the caution which declines to make changes save when a proved need for change arises, so that changes are made not suddenly, but slowly and bit by bit. The third is that intellectual freshness and activity which refuses to be petrified by respect for law or by aversion to change. It is only where these three qualities are fitly mixed or evenly balanced that either a great system of law or a finely tempered and durable constitution can grow up. Many otherwise gifted peoples have, like the Athenians in ancient and, longo intervallo, the Spaniards in modern times, wanted one or other of these qualities, and have therefore failed to enrich the world by law or by constitutions. Perhaps it was partly owing to their possessing other gifts, scarcely compatible with these, that the Athenians did fail.
But although, when a nation has reached the point at which its law begins to be scientific, the law and the constitution become teachers, it must be remembered that the training they give is mainly given to the classes which practise law and administer the State. For though a nation as a whole may come to understand and appreciate in outline its constitution, and may attain to a fairly correct notion of the functions of each organ of government, only a comparatively small section comprehends the system well enough to work it or to criticize its working. For such comprehension there is needed not only some knowledge of history but also close and continuous observation of the machinery in motion, and either participation in the business of governing or association with those who are carrying on that business. The mass of the nation cannot be expected to possess this familiarity. They are like the passengers on board an ocean steamer, who hear the clank of the engine and watch the stroke of the piston and admire the revolution of the larger wheels, and know that steam acts by expansion, but do not know how the less conspicuous but not less essential parts of the machinery play into the other parts, and have little notion of the use of flywheels and connecting-rods and regulators. They can see in what direction the vessel is moving, and can conjecture the rate of speed, but they must depend on the engineers for the management of boilers and engines, as they do on the captain for the direction of the ship’s course. In the earlier stages of national life, the masses are usually as well content to leave governing to a small upper class as passengers are to trust the captain and the engineers. But when the masses obtain, and feel that they have obtained, the sovereignty of the country, this acquiescence can no longer be counted on. Men without the requisite knowledge or training, men who, to revert to our illustration, know no more than that steam acts by expansion and that a motion in straight lines has to be turned into a rotary one, men who are not even aware of the need for knowledge and training, men with little respect for precedents, and little capacity for understanding their bearing, may take command of engines and ship: and the representative assembly may be filled by those who have no sense of the dangers to which an abuse of the vast powers of the assembly may lead. If such a change arrives, it imposes a severe strain on the constitution; and that elasticity which has been its merit may prove its danger.
It may accordingly be said that one of three conditions is generally necessary for the salvation of a Flexible Constitution. Either (1) the supremacy must remain in the hands of a politically educated and politically upright minority, or (2) the bulk of the people must be continuously and not fitfully interested in and familiar with politics, or (3) the bulk of the people, though legally supreme, must remain content, while prescribing certain general principles, to let the trained minority manage the details of the business of governing. Of these conditions the first has disappeared from nearly all civilized countries. The second has always been rare, and in large industrial countries is at present unattainable. The best chance of success is therefore to be found in the presence of the third; but it needs to be accompanied by a tone and taste and sense of public honour among the people which will recoil from the mere demagogue.
Both the influence of its constitution upon a nation and the need of certain qualities in order to work a Flexible Constitution are well illustrated in the history of the Roman commonwealth. Of all famous constitutions it was the most flexible. It lived long and overcame many perils because it grew up among a people who possessed in an eminent degree the three qualities of legalmindedness, of conservatism, and of keen practical intelligence. It trained the national mind to a respect for order and legality, and had doubtless much to do with the forming of that constructive genius which created the whole system of Roman private law. It fell at last because the mass of the citizens became unfit to discharge their function in the scheme. They did not, it is true, press into the inner circle of the governing class. The success first of the well-born and then of the rich in keeping the offices in their own hands all through is one of the most remarkable features of Roman history. But they were corrupt and reckless in the bestowal of power, and had really ceased to care for the freedom and welfare of the State. The ruling classes, on the other hand, were tempted by the demoralization of the masses to be their corrupters, and lost their old respect for legality. Even a conscientious philosopher like Cicero did not scruple to put prisoners to death without trial, and to justify himself by citing an act of lawless violence done four centuries before. The leading Romans of that day were as fit as ever to work the system, so far as skill and knowledge went, but they had not the old regard for its principles, nor the old sense of public duty; and the prizes which office offered now that Rome was mistress of the world were too huge for average virtue to resist. The moral forces which had enabled the Roman Constitution to work in spite of its extraordinary complexity, and to live, in spite of the risks to which its own nature exposed it, were now fatally enfeebled. These abuses of power on the one hand, and on the other hand the deadlocks which the system of checks caused, grew more frequent and serious. Each successive wrench which the machine received became more violent, because neither faction had patriotism enough to try to ease them off, and so break the force of the shock. From the beginning of the Republic the chief danger had lain in the immense powers vested in the magistrates. These powers had been necessary, because the State was constantly exposed to attacks from without; and nothing but the sense of devotion to the interests of the State had controlled the party spirit which rages more fiercely within the walls of a city than it does in a large and scattered community. Now that Rome had vast dominions to rule, and now that her frontiers extended to the very verge of civilization, involving her in long wars with great monarchies or groups of tribes on those frontiers, large powers had to be entrusted to military chiefs, and entrusted for long periods. Thus the Republican constitution fell through the very faults which had always lain deep in its bosom, though an over-mastering patriotism had in earlier days kept them harmless.
It is never easy, in studying the history of an institution, to determine how much of its success or its failure is due to its own character, how much to the conditions, external and domestic, in the midst of which it has to work. The fortunes of the Roman Constitution would doubtless have been different had Rome been less pressed by foreign enemies in her earlier days, or had she been less of a conquering power in her later. So too it is hard to compare States so different as Rome—whose Constitution was always that of a City, and failed to widen itself so as to become a Constitution for Italy—and England, whose Constitution has always since the days of Ecghbert and Alfred been that of a large and originally a rural and scattered community. If, however, the comparison is attempted, we may observe that England never, after the fourteenth century, recognized such vast powers in the Crown (whether in the Crown personally or as exercised by its Ministers) as Rome granted to her magistrates. In the sphere of public law England has applied more successfully than Rome did the conception of the inviolability of the rights of the citizen as against the organs of the State, although that conception is itself Roman. With all their legal genius the Romans were too much penetrated by the idea of the necessary amplitude of State power to fix just limits to the action of the Executive. When it was necessary to provide for checking a magistrate, they set up another magistrate to do it, instead of limiting magisterial powers by statute. Nor did they ever succeed as the English have done in disengaging the judicial from the executive department of government. In both these respects part of the merits of the English Constitution may be ascribed to Norman feudalism, whose precise definition of the respective rights of lord and vassal—all the lords but one being also vassals, and the greater vassals being also lords—helped to form and imprint deep the idea that powers, however strong within a definite sphere, may be strictly confined to that sphere, and that the limits of the sphere are fit matter for judicial determination. Perhaps the existence in the clergy of a large class of men enjoying specific immunities the exact range of which had to be settled, and, where possible, judicially settled, may have also contributed to train this habit of mind. The extent to which England, favoured no doubt by her insular position, was able to secure domestic freedom while leaving a large discretionary authority to the Crown, is usually credited to the rise of the House of Commons and the vigilance of its control. But much is also to be ascribed to that precise definition of the rights of the individual which has made life and property secure from injury on the part of the State, to the habit of holding officials liable for acts done in excess of their functions, and to that ultimate detachment of the judiciary from the influence of the Crown which has enabled the individual to secure by legal process the enforcement of his rights. These principles have sunk deep into the mind of the nation, and have been of the utmost service in forming the habits of thought and action by which free constitutions have to be worked. They are just as strong as if they were embodied in a Rigid Constitution, instead of being legally at the mercy of Parliament. But that is because they have centuries of tradition behind them, and because the English are a people who respect tradition and have been trained to appreciate the value of the principles which their ancestors established.
Capacity of Constitutions for Territorial Expansion.
One point more remains to be mentioned before we quit constitutions of the Flexible type, viz. their suitability to a State which is expanding its territory and taking in other communities whether by conquest or by treaty.
Such constitutions seem especially well suited to countries which are passing through periods of change, whether internal or external. When new classes of the population have to be admitted to share in political power, or when the inhabitants of newly-acquired territories have to be taken in as citizens, this is most quickly and easily effected by the action of the ordinary legislature. Both Rome and England availed themselves of this flexibility in the earlier stages of their growth. England, itself created as a State by the expansion of the West Saxons, enlarged herself to include Wales with no disturbance of her former Constitution, and similarly fused herself with Scotland in 1707 and with Ireland in 1800, in both cases altering the Constitution of the enlarged State no further than by the admission of additional members to the two Houses of Parliament, and by the suppression of certain offices in the smaller kingdoms. The ease with which the earlier expansions were effected may be attributed to the fact that in mediaeval times the prominence of the king made the submission of any tribe or territory to him carry with it the incorporation of that tribe or territory into his former dominions. The popular assembly of a community, such as were the South Saxons, for instance, sank into a secondary place as soon as the king was head of the South Saxons as well as of the West Saxons, for the council of the united people which he summoned and over which he presided became the national assembly for all his subjects. In later times, though Scotland and Ireland had their separate Parliaments, these could be readily united with that of England, because in all three countries the popular House was representative. Here, however, England has stopped. The vast dominions which she possesses beyond the oceans, while legally subject to her Crown and Parliament, have not been brought into the constitutional scheme of the motherland. Indeed they could hardly be brought in without a reconstruction of the present frame of government, which would probably have to be effected by the establishment of a Rigid Constitution.
Similarly the Roman State had its first beginnings in the union of neighbouring tribes, whose popular assemblies coalesced into one assembly. As time went on, the flexibility of the constitution permitted the extension of political rights to a number of communities which had lain outside the old Roman territory. But the process presently stopped (so far as effective political expansion was concerned), because the representative system had not yet been invented. When after the great revolt of the Allies in bc 90 Rome was compelled to grant full citizenship to a large number of Italian communities, she did not take what moderns might think the obvious course of creating a representative assembly to which these allied communities might send elected delegates, but merely distributed the new citizens among her old tribes, an expedient which so far improved the position of the Allies that they became legally equal to Roman citizens, and acquired thereby various privileges and exemptions, but which extended to them practically no share in the government, since few could not come to Rome to give their votes in the assembly of the people. It may well have been that neither the oligarchs nor the leaders of the so-called popular party at Rome were willing to resign a substantial part of the power of the inhabitants of the City, with the opportunities of bribing and being bribed, in exchange for the primacy of a Federal or quasi-Federal Italian republic. But that the notion of a representative assembly had not crossed men’s minds appears from the circumstance that the Italian Allies themselves, when in the course of their struggle they set up a rival government, merely reproduced the general lines of the Roman constitution, and did not create any representative council, excellently as it might have served their purpose. So strong was the influence of the idea of the city community in the ancient world, and (it may be added) so little power of invention do mankind display in the sphere of political institutions.
When an expanding State absorbs by way of treaty other communities already enjoying a government more or less constitutional, the process now usually takes the form of creating a Federation, and a Federation almost necessarily implies a Rigid Constitution. Cases where the Flexible Constitution of one State is stretched to take in another (as the Constitution of England was stretched to take in Scotland) are rare. The ancient Romano-Germanic Empire had a Flexible Constitution, which, already in an advanced stage of decay, was extinguished by Napoleon. When it was desired to reestablish a German Empire out of a number of practically independent States, this had to be done by the creation of a federal system under a Rigid Constitution. No similar device was required in the case of Italy, because the communities which united themselves to the kingdom of Sardinia between 1859 and 1871 had not theretofore enjoyed constitutional government, had just dismissed their whilome sovereigns, were all eager for union, and in their eagerness for union cared but little for the maintenance of any local rights.
The Origin of Rigid Constitutions.
We may now pass on to examine the other type of constitution, that for which I have suggested the name Rigid, the specific character whereof resides in the fact that every constitution belonging to it enjoys an authority superior to the authority of the other laws of the State, and can be changed only by a method different from that whereby those other laws are enacted or repealed. This type is younger than the Flexible type. The latter goes back to the very beginning of organized political societies, being the first form which the organization of such societies took. Rigid Constitutions, on the other hand, mark a comparatively advanced stage in political development, when the idea of separating fundamental laws from other laws has grown familiar, and when considerable experience in the business of government and in political affairs generally has been accumulated. Thus they have during the last hundred years been far more in favour than constitutions of the Flexible type.
In Europe they exist in every constitutional country except the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Italy. There are none in the Asiatic continent, but Asia, the cradle of civilization, possesses no constitutional self-governing State whatever, except Japan, the Constitution of which, established in 1889, bears some resemblance to that of the German Empire. America, as a new continent, is appropriately full of them. The Republic of the United States has not only presented the most remarkable instance of this type in the modern world, but has by its success become a pattern which other republics have imitated, just as most modern States in the Old World took England for their model when they established, during the nineteenth century, governments more or less free. The Constitutions of all the forty-five States of the Union are Rigid, being not alterable by the legislatures of those States respectively. This is also true of the Constitution of the Dominion of Canada, which is alterable only by the Imperial Parliament. The Constitutions of the seven Canadian Provinces might, so far as their legislatures are concerned, be deemed Flexible, being (except as respects the office of Lieutenant-Governor) alterable by ordinary provincial statutes, but as all Provincial statutes are subject to a Dominion veto, they are not within the sole power of the legislatures. Mexico and the five republics of Central America, together with the nine republics of South America, have all adopted Constitutions which their legislatures have not received power to change. Africa is the most backward of the continents, but she has in the Orange Free State a tiny republic living under a Rigid Constitution. It has been contended that the Constitution of the South African Republic (Transvaal) is referable to the same category, but it is really de iure, and it has always been treated de facto, as being a Flexible Constitution1 . The Constitutions of the Australasian colonies present legal questions of some difficulty, owing to the way in which the imperial Acts creating or confirming them have been drawn. So far as the method of changing these Constitutions has been prescribed by statutes of the colonies in which they exist, it would appear that each can also be changed by the legislature of the colony. Where those methods, however, are prescribed by the British Parliament, or by instruments issuing from the Crown, the point is more doubtful, and would need a fuller discussion than it can receive here. Questions, however, touching the relations of a legally subordinate to a legally supreme legislature lie in a different plane, so to speak, from that with which we are here concerned: and we may say that if these colonial constitutions are regarded solely as respects the legislatures of the colonies themselves, they are referable to the Flexible type. As to the new Federal Constitution of Australia there is no doubt at all. It is Rigid1 , for any alteration in it requires a majority of the States and a majority of the direct popular vote. All the acts of every British colony are subject to a power of disallowance by the Governor or the Crown, but (although it is sometimes provided that constitutional acts shall be ‘reserved’ for the pleasure of the Crown) this power is not confined to acts changing the constitution, conformably to the English habit of drawing little distinction between constitutional and other enactments.
All the above-mentioned constitutions are products of the last century and a quarter, and it is doubtful whether there existed in ad 1776 any independent State the constitution of which the ruling authority of that State could not have changed in the same way in which it changed its ordinary laws. The Swiss Confederation does not come into question, for that Confederation was, until the French laid hands on it in the last years of the eighteenth century, a League of States rather than a State, and could not be said to have any constitution in the proper sense, not to add that the republics of which the league consisted could alter the terms of their league in the same way in which they had formed it. The same remark applies to the confederation of the seven United Provinces of the Netherlands.
The beginnings of Rigid Constitutions may, however, be traced back to the seventeenth century. The first settlers in the British colonies in North America lived under governments created by royal charters which the colonial legislatures could not alter, and thus the idea of an instrument superior to the legislature and to the laws it passed became familiar1 . In one colony (Connecticut) the settlers drew up for themselves in 1638 a set of rules for their government, called the Fundamental Orders. These Orders, developed subsequently into a royal charter, were really a rudimentary constitution. And almost contemporaneously the conception appeared in England during the Civil War. The Agreement of the People, presented to the Long Parliament in 1647, contains in outline a Frame of Government for England which was meant to stand above Parliament and be not changeable by it. So Oliver Cromwell sought by his Instrument of Government, promulgated in 1653, to create a Rigid Constitution, some at least of whose provisions were to be placed beyond the reach of Parliament, and indeed apparently to be altogether unchangeable. But his own Parliament refused to recognize any part of it as outside their right of interference2 .
From this rapid geographical survey we may now return to examine the circumstances under which constitutions of this type arise. Their establishment is usually due to one or more of the four following motives:—
(1) The desire of the citizens, that is to say, of the part of the population which enjoys political rights, to secure their own rights when threatened, and to restrain the action of their ruler or rulers.
(2) The desire of the citizens, or of a ruler who wishes to please the citizens, to set out the form of the preexisting system of government in definite and positive terms precluding further controversy regarding it.
(3) The desire of those who are erecting a new political community to embody the scheme of polity under which they propose to be governed, in an instrument which shall secure its permanence and make it comprehensible by the people.
(4) The desire of separate communities, or of distinct groups or sections within a large (and probably loosely united) community, to settle and set forth the terms under which their respective rights and interests are to be safe-guarded, and effective joint action in common matters secured, through one government.
Of these four cases, the two former arise where an existing State changes its constitution. The two latter arise where a new State is created by the gathering of individuals into a community, or by the union of communities previously more or less separate into one larger community, as for instance by the forming of a Federation.
Note further that Rigid Constitutions arise in some one of four possible ways.
1. They may be given by a monarch to his subjects in order to pledge himself and his successors to govern in a regular and constitutional manner, avoiding former abuses. Several modern European constitutions have thus come into being, of which that of the Kingdom of Prussia, granted by King Frederick William the Fourth in 1850, is a familiar example. The Statuto or Fundamental Law of the Kingdom of Sardinia, now expanded into the Kingdom of Italy, was at one time deemed another instance. It is now, however, held to be a Flexible Constitution. Magna Charta would have been a fragment of such a constitution had it been legally placed out of the possibility of any change being made in it by the Great Council, then the supreme legislature of England, but it was enacted by the king in his Great Council, and has always been alterable by the same authority. The Charte Constitutionnelle for France issued by Louis the Eighteenth in 1814, and renewed in an altered form on the choice of Louis Philippe as king in 1830, and the Constitutions granted by their respective kings to Spain and to Portugal, are similar instances.
2. They may be created by a nation for itself when it has thrown off (or been released from) its old form of government, and desires to create another entirely de novo. The various Constitutions of the various French Republics from 1790 downwards are instances, as is the Constitution of the Orange Free State1 and the present (ad 1901) Constitution of Brazil. To this category also belong the Constitutions of the original thirteen States of the American Union. Two of these States, however, were content to retain the substance of the charter-constitutions under which they had lived as British Colonies, merely turning them into State constitutions, with nothing but the Confederation above them, that Confederation being then a mere League and not a National Government. The Constitution of the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy may also be referred to this category. It consists of five Fundamental Laws, enacted in 1867, and alterable by the legislature only in a specially prescribed manner.
3. They may be created by a new community, not theretofore a nation, when it deliberately and formally enters upon organized political life as a self-governing State, whether or no as also a member of any larger political body. Such are the Constitutions of the States of the American Union formed since 1790. Such was the original Constitution of Belgium, a country which had been previously a part of the Kingdom of Holland. Such is the Constitution of the Dominion of Canada, though it is a peculiar feature of this instrument—and the same is true of the Constitutions of all the self-governing British Colonies—that it has been created not by the community which it regulates but by an external authority, that of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, in a statute of ad 1867. Being unchangeable by the Dominion Legislature, it is a Rigid Constitution within the terms of our definition, although changeable, like any other statute, by the British Parliament. The new Federal Constitution of Australia belongs to the same class and had a like origin1 .
4. They may arise by the tightening of a looser tie which has theretofore existed between various self-governing communities. When external dangers or economic interests have led such communities to desire a closer union than treaties or federative agreements have previously created, such communities may unite themselves into one nation, and give that new nation a government by means of an instrument which is thereafter not only to hold them together but to provide for their action as a single body. This process of turning a League of States (Staatenbund) into a Federal State (Bundesstaat) is practically certain to create a Rigid Constitution, for the component communities which are so uniting will of course desire that the rights of each shall be safeguarded by interposing obstacles and delays to any action tending to change the terms of their union, and they will therefore place the constitution out of the reach of amendment by the ordinary legislature. Cases may, however, be imagined in which the component communities might be willing to forego this safeguard. The Achaean League did so; and its constitution was therefore a flexible one, but then the Achaean League can hardly be said to have been a single State in the strict sense of the word. It was rather a league, though a close league, of States, like the Swiss Confederation in the eighteenth century.
The most familiar instances of this fourth kind of origin are the United States of North America, the Federation of Mexico (unless it be referred to the second class), and the present Swiss Confederation. To this class may also be referred the very peculiar case of the new German Empire, which by two steps, in 1866 and in 1871, has created itself out of the pre-existing Germanic Confederation of 1815, that Confederation having been formed by the decay into fragments of the ancient East Frankish or German kingdom, which had, throughout the Middle Ages, a Flexible Constitution resembling that of the England or France or Castile of the thirteenth century.
The Enactment and Amendment of Rigid Constitutions.
Before proceeding to consider the methods by which these constitutions may be enacted and changed, it is worth while to suggest an explanation of their comparative recent appearance in history. Documentary constitutions, i.e. those contained in one or several instruments prepared for the purpose, are old. There were many of them in the Greek cities; and efforts were sometimes made when they were enacted to secure their permanence by declaring them to be unchangeable. But in the old days when City States (and sometimes also small Rural States) were ruled by Primary Assemblies, consisting of all free citizens, there was no authority higher than the legislature that could be found to enact a constitution, seeing that the legislature consisted of the whole body of the citizens. In those days, accordingly, when it was decided to give peculiar permanence to some political arrangement, so that no subsequent assembly of the people should upset it, two expedients were resorted to. One was to make all the leading men, perhaps the whole people, swear solemnly to maintain it, and thereby to bring in the deities of the States as co-enacting or at least protecting and guaranteeing parties. Tradition attributed this expedient to Lycurgus at Sparta. The other was to provide in the law intended to be Fundamental that no proposal to repeal it should ever be entertained, or to declare a heavy penalty on the audacious man who should make the proposal. The objection to both these expedients was that they debarred any amendment, however desirable, and however generally desired. Hence they were in practice little regarded, though the exceptionally pious or superstitious Spartans were deemed to be largely deterred from governmental changes by the fear of divine disapproval. Moreover, the second of the above-named devices or barriers could be easily turned by proposing to repeal, not the Fundamental law itself, but the prohibition and the penalty. These having been repealed—and of course the proposal would not be made unless its success were pretty well assured—the Fundamental Law would then itself be forthwith repealed. It must, however, be added that even if the Greek cities had adopted what seems to us the obvious plan of requiring a certain majority of votes (say two-thirds) for a change in the Fundamental Law, or had required it to be passed by four Assemblies in succession at intervals of three months, one may doubt whether such provisions would have restrained a majority in communities which were small, excitable, and seldom legally-minded.
Those who have suggested that the United Kingdom ought to embody certain parts of what we call the British Constitution in a Fundamental Statute (or Statutes) and to declare such a statute unchangeable by Parliament, or by Parliament acting under its ordinary forms, seem to forget that the Act declaring the Fundamental Statute to be Fundamental and unchangeable by Parliament would itself be an Act like any other Act, and could be repealed by another ordinary statute in the ordinary way. All that this contrivance would obtain would be to interpose an additional stage in the process of abolition or amendment, and to call the attention both of the people and the legislature in an emphatic way to the fact that a very solemn decision was being reversed. Some may think that such a security, if imperfect, would be worth having. The restraint imposed would, however, be a moral not a legal one1 .
A constitution placed out of the power of the legislature may or may not be susceptible of alteration in a legal manner. Sometimes no provision has been made, when it was first established, for any change whatever. There are instances of this among constitutions granted by a monarch to his subjects—such seems to be to-day the case in Spain—but in cases of this kind it might possibly be held that the grantor implicitly reserved the power to vary his grant, as there may not have been expressed in the document, and need not be, any bilateral obligation. As already observed, the Constitution of the present Kingdom of Italy was originally granted to the Kingdom of Sardinia by King Charles Albert in 1848; and it was for a long time held that the power to change it resided in the Crown only. It was extended by a succession of popular votes (1859 to 1871) to the rest of Italy, and some conceive that this sanction makes at least its fundamental parts unchangeable. But the view that it is alterable by legislation has prevailed, and it has in fact been so altered in some points. The Charte Constitutionnelle granted by Louis XVIII, under which the government of France was carried on for many years, was intended to create a sort of parliamentary government, in the first instance by way of gift from the sovereign, but afterwards, under Louis Philippe, by way of a compact, or kind of covenant between monarch and people. The fact that it contained no provisions for alteration, having apparently been designed to last for ever, worked against it; and the discontents of France may have ripened the faster because no constitutional method had been provided for appeasing them by changes in the machinery of government. Nothing human is immortal; and constitution-makers do well to remember that the less they presume on the long life of their work the longer it is likely to live.
The Constitutions of Norway (created in 1814, but subsequently altered) and of Greece (created in 1864) declare that amendments are to be confined to matters not fundamental, but omit to specify the matters falling under that description.
The existing Constitution of France is so far legally unalterable that no proposition for abolishing the republican form of government can be entertained. If it be asked, What is a republican form? one may answer that if ever the question has to be answered, it will be not so much by the via iuris as by the via facti. So also the Constitution of the United States is in one respect virtually, if not technically, unchangeable. No State can without its own consent be deprived of its equal representation in the Senate. As no State is ever likely to consent to such a change, the change may be deemed legally unattainable; and that any State against which it was attempted to enforce a reduction of its representation effected by constitutional amendments to which it had refused assent would be legally justified in considering itself out of the Union. In accordance with this American precedent, the new Constitution of Australia declares that no State can have its proportionate representation in the Parliament, or the minimum number of its representatives in the House of Representatives, reduced without the approval of a majority of its electors voting on a constitutional amendment1 .
Among the methods by which constitutions of the Rigid type make, as they now almost invariably do, provision for their own amendment, four deserve to be enumerated.
The first is to give the function to the Legislature, but under conditions which oblige it to act in a special way, different from that by which ordinary statutes are passed. There may, for instance, be required a fixed quorum of members for the consideration of amendments. Belgium fixes this quorum at two-thirds of each House, while also requiring a two-thirds majority of each House for a change. Bavaria requires a quorum of three-fourths of the members of each House; Rumania one of two-thirds. Or again—and this is a very frequent provision, found even when that last-mentioned is wanting—a specified minimum majority of votes may be required to carry an amendment. Sometimes this majority is three-fourths (as in Greece and Saxony, and in the German Empire for a vote of the Federal Council): more frequently it is two-thirds, as in the United States Congress, in the Mexican Chambers, in Norway, Belgium, Rumania, Servia, Bulgaria. Another plan is to require a dissolution of the Legislature, so that the amendments carried in one session may come under the judgement of the electors at a general election, and be thereafter passed, or rejected, by the newly chosen Legislature. This arrangement, often combined with the two-thirds majority rule, prevails in Holland, Norway, Rumania, Portugal, Iceland, Sweden (where the amendment must have been passed in two ordinary successive sessions), and several other States, including some of the republics of Spanish America. It is in substance an appeal to the people as well as to their representatives, and therefore adds a further guarantee against hasty change. Finally, the two Houses of the Legislature may sit together as a Constituent Assembly. Thus in France (Constitution of 1875) when each Chamber has resolved that the Constitution shall be revised, the two are for the moment fused, and proceed to debate and pass amendments. Haiti (Constitution of 1899) has a similar plan, which, oddly enough, was not borrowed from France, but is as old as 1843. Few will suspect France of borrowing from Haiti.
A second plan is to create a special body for the work of revision. In the United States, where a vast deal of constitution making and revising goes on in the several States, such a body is called a Convention, and is usually elected when it is desired to re-draft the whole constitution, the ultimate approval of the draft being, however, almost always reserved for the people1 . In Servia and Bulgaria, after amendments have been twice passed by the ordinary Legislature, a sort of Special Assembly, similarly elected, but twice as large, called the Great Skuptschina (in Servia) or Great Sobranje (in Bulgaria), receives and finally decides on the proposed amendments.
The republics of Paraguay, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Salvador also prescribe Conventions, preceded in each case by votes of the Legislature, such votes usually requiring a two-thirds majority2 .
A third plan is to refer the new constitution, or the amendments proposed (if the revision is partial), to a number of minor or local authorities for approval. This course is an obviously suitable one in a federation, and has accordingly been adopted by the United States, by Mexico, by Colombia, by Switzerland, and by the new Australian Commonwealth, in all of which the component States are consulted, the United States requiring a three-fourths majority of States, Switzerland, Australia, and Mexico a bare majority. (Switzerland and Australia also require a majority of the citizens generally.) It is not, however, invariable in federal countries, for the Argentine Confederation entrusts amendment to a Convention, following on a three-fourths majority vote of the Legislature, and Brazil (now a federal country) leaves it to the Legislature alone, acting by a two-thirds majority in three successive debates. Neither is such a plan necessarily confined to a federation, for the existing Constitution of Massachusetts was (in 1780) submitted to the Towns (i.e. townships) of the State, acting as communities, and enacted by the majority of them.
The fourth plan is to refer amendments to the direct vote of the people. Originating in the New England States of America, where democracy earliest prevailed, this method has spread to Switzerland and to Australia, both of which require for alterations in the Fundamental Instrument a majority of the electors voting as well as a majority of the States. It prevails now not only in these two federations, but also in the several States of the United States (with very rare exceptions). A bare majority of votes is sufficient, except in Rhode Island, where three-fifths are required, and in Indiana and Oregon, which require a majority of all the qualified voters. The popular vote is also in use in the several Cantons of Switzerland. It was repeatedly employed in France during the first Revolution, and again (under the name of plédiscite) by Louis Napoleon under the Second Empire.
These variations in the mode of amending are interesting enough to deserve a few comments.
Broadly speaking, two methods of amendment are most in use: that which gives the function to the Legislature, usually requiring something more than a bare majority, and that which gives it to the People, i.e. the qualified voters. The former of these methods often directs a dissolution of the Legislature to precede the final vote on amendments, and in this way secures for the people a means of delivering their judgement on the questions at issue. The latter method is, however, a more distinct and emphatic, because a more direct, recognition of Popular Sovereignty; and it has the advantage of making the constitution appear to be the work of the Nation as a whole, apart from faction, whereas in the Legislature it may have been by a party vote that the amendments have been carried. Thus it supplies the broadest and firmest basis on which a Frame of Government can rest. The Convention system is intermediate between the two others, and has struck no deep roots in the Old World, while in the United States it has been virtually superseded (as respects enactment) by that of the direct Popular Vote.
Geographically regarded, the method of revision by Legislature prevails over Europe and over most of Spanish America (being in the latter region sometimes combined with the Convention method). The Constitution which has most influenced others in Europe and become a type for them in this respect is that of Holland (1814), because it was the earliest one established after the revolutionary period. On the other hand, the United States (except the Federal Government) and the democratic governments of the Swiss and Australian Federations are ruled by the Popular method. The Constitution which has set the type of this method is that of Massachusetts of 1780.
As respects facility of change, it is interesting to note that the Constitutions which are most quickly and easily altered are those of Prussia, which prescribes no safeguard save that of two successive votes separated by an interval of at least twenty-one days, and that of France, which requires an absolute majority of each House for a proposal to revise, and an absolute majority of the two Houses sitting together for the carrying of any amendment. The omission of the French Chambers in 1875 to submit to the people the constitution then framed, or to provide for their sanction to any future amendments, was due to the doubt which each party felt of the result of an appeal to the nation. The Republicans, though able to prevent the establishment of a monarchical constitution by the Legislature, were not quite sure that a republican one would be carried if submitted to a popular vote. Thus it has come about that France, which went further towards popular sovereignty in 1793 than any great country has ever done, has lived since 1875 under an instrument never ratified by the people, and which was originally regarded as purely provisional.
The Constitution which it is most difficult to change is that of the United States. It has in fact never been amended since 1809, except thrice between 1865 and 1870, immediately after and in consequence of the Civil War, and then under conditions entirely abnormal, because some States were under military duress.
The tendency of recent years has been towards easier and swifter methods than those which were in favour during the first half of the nineteenth century: and in Germany lawyers and publicists are now disposed to minimize the difference between constitutional changes and ordinary statutes, partly perhaps because doctrines of popular sovereignty obtain little sympathy from the school dominant in the new Empire. That Empire itself presents quite peculiar phenomena. So far as the Reichstag or Federal Assembly is concerned, the constitution can be altered by ordinary legislation. But in the Federal Council a majority is required large enough to enable either Prussia on the one hand or a combination of the smaller States on the other to prevent any change. This is because the component members of the Federation are not republics, as in America, Switzerland, and Australia, but are (except the three Hanse cities) monarchies, so that the Upper Federal House represents not the people but the governments of the several German States.
It is evident that the greater or less stability of any given constitution will (other things being equal) be determined by the comparative difficulty or ease of carrying changes in one or other of the above methods. As one at least of them, that of committing the function of revision to a Constitutional Convention not followed by a popular vote, seems to interpose no more, and possibly even less, difficulty or delay than does the ordinary process of law-making by a two-chambered legislature, it may be asked why a constitution changeable in such a way should be called Rigid at all. Because inasmuch as the method of changing it is different from that of passing ordinary statutes, the people are led to realize the importance of the occasion, and may be deterred, by the trouble and formalities involved in creating the special body, from too lightly or frequently tampering with their fundamental laws. It seems a more momentous step to create this convention ad hoc than to carry a measure through a legislature which already exists, and is daily employed on legislative work. Experience has, moreover, shown in the United States, the country in which this method has been largely used for redrafting, or preparing amendments to, the Constitutions of the several States1 , that a set of men can be found for the work of a Convention better than those who form the ordinary legislature of the State, and that their proceedings when assembled excite more attention and evoke more discussion than do those of a State Legislature, a body which now receives little respect, though perhaps as much as it deserves. Nowadays, however, a draft constitution prepared by a Convention is in an American State almost always submitted to the people for their approval.
The French plan of using the two Houses sitting together as a Constituent Convention has a certain interest for Englishmen, because the suggestion has been made that disputes between their House of Lords and House of Commons might be settled by a vote of both sitting together, i.e. of the whole of the Great Council of the Nation1 as it sat in the thirteenth century before it had formed the habit of debating and voting in two Houses. It still meets (but does not debate or vote) as one body when the Sovereign, or a Commission representing the Sovereign, is present, as happens at the beginning and at the end of each session.
To examine the distinctive qualities of Rigid Constitutions, as I must now do, is virtually to traverse again the same path which was followed in investigating those of the Flexible type, for the points in which the latter were found deficient are those in which Rigid Constitutions excel, while the merits of the Flexible indicate the faults of the Rigid. The inquiry may, therefore, be brief.
The two distinctive merits claimed for these Constitutions are their Definiteness and their Stability.
The Definiteness of Rigid Constitutions.
We have seen that the distinctive mark of these Rigid Constitutions is their superiority to ordinary statutes. They are not the work of the ordinary legislature, and therefore cannot be changed by it. They are embodied in one written document, or possibly in a few documents, so that their provisions are ascertainable without doubt by a reference to the documentary terms. This feature is a legitimate consequence of the importance which belongs to a law placed above all other laws. That which is to be the sheet-anchor of the State, giving permanent shape to its political scheme, cannot be left unwritten, and cannot be left to be gathered from a comparison of a considerable number of documents which may be confused or inconsistent. Whether it spring from the agreement of the citizens or from the free gift of a monarch, it must be embodied if possible in one, if not, at any rate in only a few solemn instruments. That which is to be a fundamental law, limiting the power of the legislature, must be set forth in specific and unmistakable terms—else how shall it be known when the legislature is infringing upon or violating it? A Flexible Constitution, which the legislature can modify or destroy at its pleasure, though it might conceivably be embodied in one document only, is in fact almost always to be collected from at least several documents, and is often, like the Flexible Constitution of England, scattered through a multitude of statutes and collections of precedents. But the benefits expected from a Rigid Constitution would be lost were its provisions left in similar confusion.
It is not, however, to be supposed that the citizen of a country controlled by a Rigid Constitution who desires to understand the full scope and nature of his government will find all that he needs in the document itself. No law ever was so written as to anticipate and cover all the cases that can possibly arise under it1 . There will always be omissions, some left intentionally, because the points not specifically covered were deemed fitter for the legislature to deal with subsequently, some, again, because the framers of the constitution could not agree, or knew that the enacting authority would not agree, regarding them. Other omissions, unnoticed at the time, will be disclosed by the course of events, for questions are sure to arise which the imagination or foresight of those who prepared the constitution never contemplated. There will also be expressions whose meaning is obscure, and whose application to unforeseen cases will be found doubtful when those cases have to be dealt with. Here let us distinguish three classes of omissions or obscurities:—
The first class includes matters, passed over in silence by the written constitution, which cannot be deemed to have been left to be settled either by the legislature or by any other organ of government, because they are too large or grave, as for instance matters by dealing with which the legislature would disturb the balance of the constitution and encroach on the province of the Executive, or the Judiciary, or (in a Federal Government) of the component States. Matters belonging to this class can only be dealt with by an amendment of the constitution itself.
The second class includes gaps or omissions relating to matters not palpably outside the competence of the legislature as defined by the constitution. Here the proper course will be for the legislature to regulate such matters by statute, or else to leave them to be settled by the action of the several organs of government each acting within its own sphere. These organs may by such action create a body of usage which, when well settled, will practically supplement the defects of the constitution, as statutes will do in like manner, so far as they are passed to cover the omitted cases.
The third class consists not of omissions but of matters which are referred to by the constitution, but in terms whose meaning is doubtful. Here the question is what interpretation is to be given to its words by the authority entitled to interpret, that authority being in some countries the legislature, in others the judicial tribunals. To the subject of Interpretation I shall presently return. Meantime, it must be noted that both Legislation and Usage in filling up the vacant spaces in the constitution, and Interpretation in explaining its application to a series of new cases as they arise upon points not expressly covered by its words, expand and develop a constitution, and may make it after a long interval of time different from what it seemed to be to those who watched its infancy. The statutes, usages, and explanations aforesaid will in fact come to form a sort of fringe to the constitution, cohering with it, and possessing practically the same legal authority as its express words have. And it thus may happen that (as in the United States) a large mass of parasitic law grows up round the document or documents which contain the Constitution. Nevertheless there will still remain a distinction between this parasitic law and usage and the provisions of the constitution itself. The latter stand unchangeable, save by constitutional amendment. Statutes, on the other hand, can be changed by the legislature; usage may take a new direction; the decisions given interpreting the constitution may be recalled or varied by the authority that pronounced them. All these are in fact Flexible parasites growing upon a Rigid stem. Thus it will be seen that the apparent definiteness and simplicity of Documentary Constitutions may in any given case be largely qualified by the growth of a mass of quasi-constitutional matter which has to be known before the practical working of the constitution can be understood.
The Stability of Rigid Constitutions.
The stability of a constitution is an object to be much desired both because it inspires a sense of security in the minds of the citizens, encouraging order, industry and thrift, and because it enables experience to be accumulated whereby the practical working of the constitution may be improved. Political institutions are under all circumstances difficult to work, and when they are frequently changed, the nation does not learn how to work them properly. Experiment is the soul of progress, but experiments must be allowed a certain measure of time. The plant will not grow if men frequently uncover the roots to see how they are striking. Constitutions embodied in one legal document and unchangeable by the legislature, are intended to be, and would seem likely to be, peculiarly durable. Being definite, they do not give that opening to small deviations and perversions likely to arise from the vagueness of a Flexible or ‘unwritten’ Constitution, or from the probable discrepancies between the different laws and traditions of which it consists. They may be battered down, but they cannot easily (save by a method to be presently examined) be undermined. When an attack is made upon them, whether by executive acts violating their provisions, or by the passing of statutes inconsistent with those provisions, such an attack can hardly escape observation. It is a plain notice to the defenders of the constitution to rally and to stir up the people by showing the mischief of an insidious change. The principles on which the government rests, being set forth in a broad and simple form, obtain a hold upon the mind of the community, which, if it has been accustomed to give those principles a general approval, will be unwilling to see them tampered with. Moreover the process prescribed for amendment interposes various delays and formalities before a change can be carried through, pending which the people can reconsider the issues involved, and recede, if they think fit, from projects that may have at first attracted them. Both in Switzerland and in the States of the American Union it has repeatedly happened that constitutional amendments prepared and approved by the legislature have been rejected by the people, not merely because the mass of the people are often more conservative than their representatives, or are less amenable to the pressure of particular ‘interests’ or sections of opinion, but because fuller discussion revealed objections whose weight had not been appreciated when the proposal first appeared. In these respects the Rigid Constitution has real elements of stability.
Nevertheless it may be really less stable than it appears, for there is in its rigidity an element of danger.
It has already been noted that a constitution of the Flexible type finds safety in the elasticity which enables it to be stretched to meet some passing emergency, and then to resume its prior shape, and that it may disarm revolution by meeting revolution half-way. This is just what the Rigid Constitution cannot do. It is constructed, if I may borrow a metaphor from mechanics, like an iron railway-bridge, built solidly to resist the greatest amount of pressure by wind or water that is likely to impinge upon it. If the materials are sound and the workmanship good, the bridge resists with apparent ease, and perhaps without showing signs of strain or displacement, up to the highest degree of pressure provided for. But when that degree has been passed, it may break suddenly and utterly to pieces, as the old Tay Bridge did under the storm of December, 1879. The fact that it is very strong and all knit tightly into one fabric, while enabling it to stand firm under small oscillations or disturbances, may aggravate great ones. For just as the whole bridge collapses together, so the Rigid Constitution, which has arrested various proposed changes, may be overthrown by a popular tempest which has gathered strength from the very fact that such changes were not and under the actual conditions of politics could not be made by way of amendment. When a party grows up clamouring for some reforms which can be effected only by changing the constitution, or when a question arises for dealing with which the constitution provides no means, then, if the constitution cannot be amended in the legal way, because the legally prescribed majority cannot be obtained, the discontent that was debarred from any legal outlet may find vent in a revolution or a civil war. The history of the Slavery question in the United States illustrates this danger on so grand a scale that no other illustration is needed. The Constitution of 1787, while recognizing the existence of slavery, left sundry questions, and in particular that of the extension of slavery into new territories and States, unsettled. Thirty years later these matters became a cause of strife, and after another thirty years this strife became so acute as to threaten the peace of the country. Both parties claimed that the Constitution was on their side. Had there been no Constitution embodied in an instrument difficult of change, or had it been practicable to amend the Constitution, so that the majority in Congress could have had, at an earlier stage, a free hand in dealing with the question, it is possible—though no one can say that it is certain—that the War of Secession might have been averted. So much may at any rate be noted that the Constitution, which was intended to hold the whole nation together, failed to do. There might no doubt in any case have been armed strife, as there was in England under its Flexible Constitution in 1641. But it is at least equally probable that the slave-holding party, which saw its hold on the government slipping away, hardened its heart because it held that it was the true exponent of the Constitution, and because the Constitution made compromise more difficult than it need have been in a country possessing a fully sovereign legislature.
Two opposing tendencies are always at work in countries ruled by these Constitutions, the one of which tends to strengthen, the other to weaken them. The first is the growth of the respect for the Constitution which increasing age brings. The remark is often made that if husband and wife do not positively dislike one another, and if their respective characters do not change under ill-health or misfortune, every year makes them like one another better. They may not have been warmly attached at first, but the memories of past efforts and hardships, as well as of past enjoyments, endear them more and more to one another, and even if jars and bickerings should unhappily recur from time to time, the strength of habit renders each necessary to the other, and makes that final severance which, at moments of exasperation, they may possibly have contemplated with equanimity, a severe blow when it arrives. So a nation, though not contented with its Constitution, and vexed by quarrels over parts of it, may grow fond of it simply because it has lived with it, has obtained a measure of prosperity under it, has perhaps been wont to flaunt its merits before other nations, and to toast it at public festivities. The magic of self-love and self-complacency turns even its meaner parts to gold, while imaginative reverence for the past lends it a higher sanction. This is one way in which Time may work. But Time also works against it, for Time, in changing the social and material condition of a people, makes the old political arrangements as they descend from one generation to another a less adequate expression of their political needs. Nobody now discusses the old problem of the Best Form of Government, because everybody now admits that the chief merit of any form is to be found in its suitability to the conditions and ideas of those among whom it prevails. Now if the conditions of a country change, if the balance of power among classes, the dominant ideas of reflective men, the distribution of wealth, the sources whence wealth flows, the duties expected from the administrative departments of government, all become different, while the form and constitutionally-prescribed methods of government remain unmodified, it is clear that flaws in the Constitution will be revealed which were previously unseen, and problems will arise with which its arrangements cannot cope. The remedy is of course to amend the Constitution. But that is just what may be impossible, because the requisite majority may be unattainable; and the opponents of amendment, entrenched behind the ramparts of an elaborate procedure, may succeed in averting changes which the safety of the community demands. The provisions that were meant to give security may now be dangerous, because they stand in the way of natural development.
Even where no strong party interest is involved it may be hard to pass the amendments needed. The history of the United States again supplies a case in point. Two defects in its Constitution are admitted by most political thinkers. One is the absence of power to establish a uniform law of marriage and divorce over the whole Union. The other is the method of conducting the election of a President, a method which in 1876 brought the country to the verge of civil war, and may every four years involve the gravest risks. Yet it has been found impossible to procure any amendment on either point, because an enormous force of united public opinion is needed to ensure the concurrence of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and three-fourths of the States. The first of these two changes excites no sufficient interest among politicians to make them care to deal with it. The second is neglected, because no one has a clear view of what should be substituted, and neither party feels that it has more to gain than has the other by grappling with the problem.
A historical comparison of the two types as regards the smoothness of their working, and the consequent tendency of one or other to secure a quiet life to the State, yields few profitable results, because the circumstances of different nations are too dissimilar to enable close parallels to be drawn, and because much depends upon the skill with which the provisions of each particular instrument have been drawn and upon the greater or less particularity of those provisions. The present Constitution of France, for instance, is contained in two very short and simple documents, which determine only the general structure of the government, and are in size not one-twentieth of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland. Hence it follows that a far freer play is left to the legislature and executive in France than in Switzerland; and that these two authorities have in the former State more power of meeting any change in the conditions of the country, and also more power of doing harm by hasty and unwise action, than is permitted in the latter. As Adaptability is the characteristic merit and insecurity the characteristic defect of a Flexible Constitution, so the drawback which corresponds to the Durability of the Rigid is its smaller capacity for meeting the changes and chances of economic, social and political conditions. A provision strictly defining the structure of the government may prevent the evolution of a needed organ. A prohibition debarring the legislature from passing certain kinds of measures may prove unfortunate when a measure of that kind would be the proper remedy. Every security has its corresponding disadvantage.
The Interpretation of Rigid Constitutions.
A well-drawn Rigid Constitution will confine itself to essentials, and leave many details to be filled in subsequently by ordinary legislation and by usage. But (as already observed) even the best-drawn instrument is sure to have omitted some things which ought to have been expressly provided for, to have imposed restrictions which will prove inconvenient in practice, to contain provisions which turn out to be susceptible of different interpretations when cases occur raising a point to which the words of those provisions do not seem to be directly addressed. When any of these things happen, the authorities, legislative and executive, who have to work the Constitution find themselves in a difficulty. Steps seem called for which the Constitution either does not give power to do, or forbids to be done, or leaves in such doubt as to raise scruples and controversies. The authorities, or the nation itself, have then three alternative courses open to them. The first is to submit to the restrictions which the Constitution imposes, and abandon a contemplated course of action, though the public interest demands it. This is disagreeable, but if the case is not urgent, may be the best course, though it tends to the disparagement of the Constitution itself. The second course is to amend the Constitution: and it is obviously the proper one, if it be possible. But it may be practically impossible, because the procedure for passing an amendment may be too slow, the need for action being urgent, or because the majority that can be secured for amendment, even if large, may be smaller than the Constitution prescribes. The only remaining expedient is that which is euphemistically called Extensive Interpretation, but may really amount to Evasion. Evasion, pernicious as it is, may give a slighter shock to public confidence than open violation, as some have argued that equivocation leaves a man’s conscience less impaired for future use than does the telling of a downright falsehood. Cases occur in which the Executive or the Legislature profess to be acting under the Constitution, when in reality they are stretching it, or twisting it, i.e. are putting a forced construction upon its terms, and affecting to treat that as being lawful under its terms which the natural sense of the terms does not justify. The question follows whether such an evasion will be held legal, i.e. whether acts done in virtue of such a forced construction as aforesaid will be deemed constitutional, and will bind the citizens as being legally done. This will evidently depend on a matter we have not yet considered, but one of profound importance, viz. the authority in whom is lodged the right of interpreting a Rigid Constitution.
On this point there is a remarkable diversity of theory and practice between countries which follow the English and countries which follow the Roman law. The English attribute the right to the Judiciary. As a constitutional instrument is a law, distinguished from other laws only by its higher rank, principle suggests that it should, like other laws, be interpreted by the legal tribunals, the last word resting, as in other matters, with the final Court of Appeal. This principle of referring to the Courts all questions of legal interpretation may be said to be inherent in the English Common Law, and holds the field in all countries whose systems are built upon the foundation of that Common Law. In particular, it holds good in the United Kingdom and in the United States. As the British Parliament can alter any part of the British Constitution at pleasure, the principle is of secondary political importance in England, for when any really grave question arises on the construction of a constitutional law it is dealt with by legislation. However, the action of the Courts in construing the existing law is watched with the keenest interest when questions arise which the Legislature refuses to deal with, such, for instance, as those that affect the doctrine and discipline of the Established Church. So in the seventeenth century, when constitutional questions were at issue between the King and the House of Commons, which it was impossible to settle by statute, because the king would have refused consent to bills passed by the Commons, the power of the Judges to declare the rules of the ancient Constitution was of great significance. In the United States, where Congress cannot alter the Constitution, the function of the Judiciary to interpret the will of the people as set forth in the Constitution has attained its highest development. The framers of that Constitution perhaps scarcely realized what the effect of their arrangements would be. More than ten years passed before any case raised the point; and when the Supreme Court declared that an Act of Congress might be invalid because in excess of the power granted by the Constitution, some surprise and more anger were expressed. The reasoning on which the Court proceeded was, however, plainly sound, and the right was therefore soon admitted. Canada and Australia have followed the English doctrine, so the Bench has a weighty function under the constitutions of both those Federations.
On the European Continent a different view prevails, and the Legislature is held to be the judge of its own powers under the Constitution, so that no Court of law may question the authority of a statute passed in due form. Such is the rule in Switzerland. There, as in most parts of the European Continent, the separation of the Judiciary from the other two powers has been less complete than in England, and the deference to what Englishmen and Americans call the Rule of Law less profound. The control over governmental action which the right of interpretation implies seems to the Swiss too great, and too political in its nature, to be fit for a legal tribunal. It is therefore vested in the National Assembly, which when a question is raised as to the constitutionality of a Federal Statute or Executive Act, or as to the transgression of the Federal Constitution by a Cantonal Statute, is recognized as the authority competent to decide. The same doctrine seems to prevail in the German Empire, though the point is there not quite free from doubt, and also in the Austrian Monarchy, in France, and in Belgium. In the Orange Free State, living under Roman-Dutch law, the Bench, basing itself on American precedents, claimed the right of authoritative interpretation, but the Legislature hesitated to admit it.
American lawyers conceive that the strength and value of a Rigid Constitution are greatly reduced when the Legislature becomes the judge of its own powers, entitled after passing a statute which really transgresses the Constitution to declare that the Constitution has in fact not been transgressed. The Swiss, however, deem the disadvantages of the American method still more serious, for they hold that it gives the last word to the judges, persons not chosen for or fitted for such a function, and they declare that in point of fact public opinion and the traditions of their government prevent the power vested in their National Assembly from being abused. And it must be added that the Americans have so far felt the difficulty which the Swiss dwell on, that the Supreme Court has refused to pronounce upon the action of Congress in ‘purely political cases,’ i. e. cases where the arguments used to prove or disprove the conformity to the Constitution of the action taken by Congress are of a political nature.
Returning to the question of legislative action alleged to transgress the Constitution, it is plain that if the Legislature be, as in Switzerland, the arbiter of its own powers, so that the validity of its acts cannot be questioned in a court of law, there is no further difficulty. But where that validity can be challenged, as in the United States, it might be supposed that every unconstitutional statute will be held null, and that thus any such stretching or twisting of the Constitution as has been referred to will be arrested. But experience has shown that where public opinion sets strongly in favour of the line of conduct which the Legislature has followed in stretching the Constitution, the Courts are themselves affected by that opinion, and go as far as their legal conscience and the general sense of the legal profession permit—possibly sometimes even a little farther—in holding valid what the Legislature has done. This occurs most frequently where new problems of an administrative kind present themselves. The Courts recognize, in fact, that ‘principle of development’ which is potent in politics as well as in theology. Human affairs being what they are, there must be a loophole for expansion or extension in some part of every scheme of government; and if the Constitution is Rigid, Flexibility must be supplied from the minds of the Judges. Instances of this kind have occurred in the United States, as when some twenty years ago the Supreme Court recognized a power in a State Legislature to deal with railway companies not consistent with the opinions formerly enounced by the Court, though they disclaimed the intention of overruling those opinions1 .
Does not a danger lurk in this? May not a majority in the Legislature, if and when they have secured the concurrence, honest or dishonest, of the Judiciary, practically disregard the Constitution? May not the Executive conspire with them to manipulate places on the highest Court of Appeal, so as to procure from it such declarations of the meaning of the Constitution as the conspiring parties desire? May not the Constitution thus be slowly nibbled away? Certainly. Such things may happen. It is only public opinion and established tradition that will avail to prevent them. But it is upon public opinion, moulded by tradition, that all free governments must in the last resort rely.
Democracies and Rigid Constitutions.
The mention of traditions, that is to say of the mental and moral habits of judgement which a nation has formed, and which guide its political life, as the habits of each one of us guide his individual life, suggests an inquiry as to the effect of Documentary Constitutions on the ideas and habits of those who live under them. I will not venture on broad generalizations, because it is hard to know how much should be assigned to the racial tendencies of a nation, how much to the circumstances of its history, how much to its institutions. But the cases of Switzerland and the United States seem to show that the tendency of these instruments is to foster a conservative temper. The nation feels a sense of repose in the settled and permanent form which it has given to its government. It is not alarmed by the struggles of party in the legislature, because aware that that body cannot disturb the fundamental institutions. Accordingly it will often, contracting a dislike to change, negative the amendments which the legislature submits to it. This happens in Switzerland, as already observed; and the people of the United States, though liable to sudden and violent waves of political opinion, show so little disposition to innovate that Congress has not proposed any amendments to the State Legislatures since 18701 . I may be reminded that the Constitutions of the several States of the Union are frequently recast or amended in detail. This is true, but the cause lies not so much in a restless changefulness as in the low opinion entertained of the State Legislatures. The distrust felt for these bodies induces the people to take a large part of what is really ordinary legislation out of their hands, and to enact themselves, in a form of a Constitution, the laws they wish. State Constitutions now contain many regulations on matters of detail, and have thus, in most States, ceased to be considered fundamental instruments of government. To revise or amend them has become merely a convenient method of direct popular legislation, similar to the Swiss Popular Initiative and Referendum. But the fundamental parts of these instruments are but slightly changed.
In estimating the influence of Flexible Constitutions in forming the political character of a nation, in stimulating its intelligence and training its judgement, it was remarked that only the governing class, a very small part of the nation even in democratic countries, are directly affected. This is less true of a Rigid Constitution. While a Flexible Constitution like the Roman or English requires much knowledge, tact and courage to work it, and develops these qualities in those who bear a part in the working of it, as legislators or officials or magistrates, a Rigid Constitution tends rather to elicit ingenuity, subtlety and logical acumen among the corresponding class of persons. It is apt to give a legal cast to most questions, and sets a high, perhaps too high, premium on legal knowledge and legal capacity. But it goes further. It affects a much larger part of the community than the Flexible Constitution does. Few even of the governing class can be expected to understand the latter. The average Roman voter in the comitia in the days of Cicero, like the average English voter at the polls to-day, probably knew but little about the legal structure of the government he lived under. But the average Swiss voter, like the average native American voter (for the recent immigrant is a different sort of creature), understands his government, can explain it, and has received a great deal of education from it. Talk to a Swiss peasant in Solothurn or Glarus, and you will be astonished at his mastery of principles as well as his knowledge of details. Very likely he has a copy of the Federal Constitution at home. He has almost certainly learnt it at school. It disciplines his mind much as the Shorter Catechism trained the Presbyterian peasantry of Scotland. As there is no mystery about a scheme of government so set forth, it may be thought that he will have little reverence for that which he comprehends. It is, however, his own. He feels himself a part of the Government, and seems to be usually imbued with a respect even for the letter of the instrument, a wholesome feeling, which helps to form that law-abiding spirit which a democracy needs.
A documentary Constitution appears to the people as the immediate outcome of their power, the visible image of their sovereignty. It is commended by a simplicity which contrasts favourably with the obscure technicalities of an old common law Constitution. The taste of the multitude, and especially of that class which outnumbers all other classes, the thinly-educated persons whose book-knowledge is drawn from dry manuals in mechanically-taught elementary schools, and who in after life read nothing but newspapers, or penny weeklies, or cheap novels—the taste of this class, and that not merely in Europe but perhaps even more in the new countries, such as Western America and the British Colonies, is a taste for ideas level with their comprehension, sentiments which need no subtlety to be appreciated, propositions which can be expressed in unmistakable positives and negatives. Thus the democratic man (as Plato would call him) is pleased to read and know his Constitution for himself. The more plain and straightforward it is the better, for so he will not need to ask explanations from any one more skilled. And a good reason for this love of plainness and directness may be found in the fact that the twilight of the older Constitutions permitted abuses of executive power against which the express enactments of a Rigid Constitution protect the people. Magna Charta, the Bill of Rights, the Twelve Tables, were all fragments, or rather instalments, of such a Constitution, rightly dear to the commons, for they represented an advance towards liberty and order1 .
The theory of democracy assumes that the multitude are both competent and interested; competent to understand the structure of their government and their own functions and duties as ultimately sovereign in it, interested as valuing those functions, and alive to the responsibility of those duties. A Constitution set out in black and white, contained in a concise document which can be expounded and remembered more easily than a Constitution growing out of a long series of controversies and compromises, seems specially fitted for a country where the multitude is called to rule. Only memory and common sense are needed to master it. It can lay down general principles in a series of broad, plain, authoritative propositions, while in the case of the ‘historical Constitution’ they have to be gathered from various sources, and expressed, if they are to be expressed correctly, in a guarded and qualified form. Now the average man, if intelligent enough to comprehend politics at all, likes general principles. Even if, as some think, he overvalues them, yet his capacity for absorbing them gives him a sort of comprehension of his government and attachment to it which are solid advantages in a large democracy.
Constitutions of this type have usually arisen when the mass of the people were anxious to secure their rights against the invasions of power, and to construct a frame of government in which their voices should be sure to prevail. They furnish a valuable protection for minorities which, if not liable to be overborne by the tyranny of the mass, are at any rate liable to be disheartened into silence by superior numbers, and so need all the protection which legal safeguards can give them. Thus they have generally been accounted as institutions characteristic of democracy, though the cases of Germany and Japan show that this is not necessarily true.
A change of view has, however, become noticeable within the last few years. In the new democracies of the United States and the British self-governing Colonies—and the same thing is true of popularly governed countries in Europe—the multitude no longer fears abuses of power by its rulers. It is itself the ruler, accustomed to be coaxed and flattered. It feels no need for the protection which Rigid Constitutions give. And in the United States it chafes under those restrictions on legislative power, embodied in the Federal Constitution or State Constitution (as the case may be), which have surrounded the rights of property and the obligation of subsisting contracts with safeguards obnoxious, not only to the party called Socialist, but to reformers of other types. As these safeguards are sometimes thought to prevent the application of needed remedies and to secure impunity for abuses which have become entrenched behind them, the aforesaid constitutional provisions have incurred criticism and censure from various sections, and many attempts have been made by State legislatures, acting at the bidding of those who profess to control the votes of working men, to disregard or evade the restrictions. These attempts are usually defeated by the action of the Courts, whence it happens that both the Federal Constitution and the functions of the Judiciary are often attacked in the country which was so extravagantly proud of both institutions half a century ago. This strife between the Bench as the defender of old-fashioned doctrines (embodied in the provisions of a Rigid Constitution (Federal or State)) and a State Legislature acting at the bidding of a large section of the voters is a remarkable feature of contemporary America.
The significance of this change in the tendency of opinion is enhanced when we find that a similar change has been operative in the opposite camp. The very considerations which have made odious to some American reformers those restrictions on popular power, behind which the great corporations and the so-called ‘Trusts’ (and capitalistic interests generally) have entrenched themselves, have led not a few in England to applaud the same restrictions as invaluable safeguards to property. Realizing, a little late in the day, that political power has in England passed from the Few to the Many, fearing the use which the Many may make of it, and alarmed by the precedents which land legislation in Ireland has set, they are anxious to tie down the British legislature, while yet there is time, by provisions which shall prevent interference with a man’s control over what he calls his own, shall restrict the taking of private property for public uses, shall secure complete liberty of contracting, and forbid interference with contracts already made. Others in England, in their desire to save political institutions which they think in danger, propose to arrest any sudden popular action by placing those institutions in a class by themselves, out of the reach of the regular action of Parliament. In other words, the establishment in Britain of a species of Rigid Constitution has begun to be advocated, and advocated by the persons least inclined to trust democracy. ‘Imagine a country’—so they argue—‘with immense accumulated wealth, and a great inequality of fortunes, a country which rules a vast and distant Empire, a country which depends for her prosperity upon manufactures liable to be injured by bad legislation, and upon a commerce liable to be imperilled by unskilful diplomacy, and suppose that such a country should admit to power a great mass of new and untrained voters, to whose cupidity demagogues will appeal, and upon whose ignorance charlatans will practise. Will not such a country need something better for her security than a complicated and delicately-poised Constitution resting largely on mere tradition, a Constitution which can at any moment be fundamentally altered by a majority, acting in a revolutionary transient spirit, yet in a perfectly legal way? Ought not such a country to place at least the foundations of her system and the vital principles of her government out of the reach of an irresponsible parliamentary majority, making the procedure for altering them so slow and so difficult that there will be time for the conservative forces to rally to their defence before any fatal changes can be carried through?’
I refer to these arguments, which were frequently heard in England during some years after the extension of the suffrage in 18841 , with no intention of discussing their soundness, for that belongs to politics, but solely for the sake of illustrating how different are the aspects which the same institution may come to wear. A century ago revolutionists were the apostles, conservatives the enemies, of Rigid Constitutions. Even forty years ago it was the Flexibility of the historical British Constitution that was its glory in the eyes of admirers of the British system, its Rigidity that was the glory of the American Constitution in the eyes of fervent democrats.
The Future of the Flexible and Rigid Types.
A few concluding reflections may be devoted to the probable future of the two types that have been occupying our minds. Are both likely to survive? or if not, which of the two will prevail and outlast the other?
Two reasons suggest themselves for predicting the prevalence of the Rigid type. One is that no new Flexible Constitutions have been born into the world for many years past, unless we refer to this class those of some of the British self-governing colonies1 . The other is that no country now possessing a Rigid Constitution seems likely to change it for a Flexible one. The footsteps are all the other way. Flexible Constitutions have been turned into Rigid ones. No Rigid one has become Flexible2 . Even those who complain of the undue conservatism of the American Constitution do not propose to abolish that Constitution altogether, nor to place it at the mercy of Congress, but merely to expunge parts of it, though no doubt parts which (such as the powers of the Judiciary) have been vital to its working.
Against these two arguments may be set the fact that popular power has in most countries made great advances, and does not need the protection of an instrument controlling the legislature and the executive, which are already only too eager to bend to every breeze of popular opinion. If we lived in a time of small States, as the ancients did, the people would themselves legislate in primary assemblies. Why then, it may be asked, should they care to limit the powers of legislatures which are completely at their bidding? The old reasons for holding legislatures and executives in check have disappeared. Why should the people, safe and self-confident, impose a check on themselves? In this there may be some truth. But it must be remembered that since modern States are larger than those of former times, and tend to grow larger by the absorption of the small ones, legislatures are necessary, for business could not be carried on by primary popular assemblies, even with the aid of ‘plébiscites.’ Now legislatures are nowhere rising in the respect and confidence of the people, and it is therefore improbable that any nation which has a documentary Constitution, holding its legislature in subjection, will abolish it for the benefit of the legislature, although it may wish to do more and more of its legislation by the direct action of the people, as it does in Switzerland and in some of the States of the American Union. On the whole, therefore, it seems probable that Rigid Constitutions will survive in countries where they already exist.
Two other questions remain. Will existing Flexible Constitutions remain? Are such new States as may arise likely to adopt Constitutions of the Rigid or of the Flexible type?
An inquiry whether countries which, like Hungary and Britain, now live under ancient Flexible Constitutions will exchange them for new documentary ones would resolve itself into a general study of the political prospects of those countries. All that can be said, apart from such a study, is that our age shows no such general tendency to change in this respect as did the revolutionary and post-revolutionary era of the first sixty years of the nineteenth century. Still, a few lines may be given to considering whether any such alteration of form is likely to pass on the Constitution which has long had the unquestioned pre-eminence in age and honour, that, namely, of the United Kingdom, which is really the ancient Constitution of England so expanded as to include Scotland and Ireland.
So far as internal causes and forces are concerned, this seems improbable. The people are not likely, despite the alarms felt and the advice tendered by the uneasy persons to whom reference has already been made, to part with the free play and elastic power of their historical Cabinet and Parliamentary system. England has never yet made any constitutional change either on grounds of theory or from a fear of evils that might arise in the future. All the modifications of the frame of government have been gradual, and induced by actually urgent needs.
But there is another set of causes and forces at work which may, as some think, affect the question. It has already been noted that Rigid Constitutions have arisen where States originally independent or semi-independent have formed Confederations. These States, finding the kind of connexion which treaties had created insufficient for their needs, have united themselves into one Federal State, and expressed their new and closer relation in the form of a documentary Constitution. Such a Constitution has invariably been raised above the legislature it was creating, because the States which were uniting wished to guard jealously such autonomy as they respectively retained, and would not leave those rights at the mercy of the legislature. This happened in the United States in 1787-9, in Switzerland after the fall of Napoleon, in Germany when the North German Confederation and German Empire were created in 1866 and 1870-71. It has happened also in Canada and in Australia.
Two proposals of a federalizing nature have recently been made regarding the United Kingdom, one to split it up into a Federation of four States, the other to make it a member of a large Federation. Neither seems likely to be carried out at present, but both are worth mentioning, because they illustrate the occasions on which, and methods by which, constitutions may be transformed. The United Kingdom stands to its self-governing Colonies in what is practically a permanent alliance as regards all foreign relations, these relations being managed by the mother country, with complete local legislative and administrative autonomy both for each Colony and for the mother country1 . Many think that this alliance is not a satisfactory, and cannot well be a permanent, form of connexion, because at present almost the whole burden—and it is a heavy one—of naval and military defence falls upon Britain, while the Colonies have no share in the control of foreign relations, and may find themselves engaged in a war, or bound by a treaty, regarding which they have not been consulted. Thus the idea has grown up that some sort of confederation ought to be established, in which there would be a Federal Assembly, containing representatives of the (at present seven) component States2 , and controlling those matters, such as foreign relations and a system of military and naval armaments, which would be common to the whole body. If this idea were ever to take practical shape, it would probably be carried out by a statute establishing a new Constitution for the desired Confederation, and creating the Federal Assembly. Such a statute would be passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and (being expressed to be operative over the whole Empire) would have full legal effect for the Colonies as well as for the mother country. Now if such a statute assigned to the Federal Assembly certain specified matters, as for instance the control of imperial defence and expenditure or (let us say) legislation regarding merchant shipping and copyright, taking them away from the present and future British Parliament as well as from the parliaments of the several Colonies, and therewith debarring the British Parliament from recalling or varying the grant except by the consent of the several Colonies (or perhaps of the Federal Assembly itself), it is clear that the now unlimited powers of the British Parliament would have been reduced. A part of the future British Constitution would have been placed beyond its control: and to that extent the British Constitution would have ceased to be a Flexible one within the terms of the definition already given1 . Parliament would not be fully sovereign; and if either the British or a Colonial Parliament passed laws inconsistent with statutes passed by the Federal Assembly in matters assigned to the latter, the Courts would have to hold the transgressing laws invalid.
Doubtless, if such a Federal Constitution were established, a Supreme Court of Appeal on which some colonial judges should sit would be thought essential to it, and questions arising under the Federation Act (as to the extent of the powers of the Federal Assembly and otherwise) would go before it, sometimes in the first instance, sometimes by way of appeal from inferior Courts.
The other proposal is to turn the United Kingdom itself into a Federation by erecting England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales into four States, each with a local legislature and ministry controlling local affairs, while retaining the Imperial Parliament as a Central or Federal Legislature for such common affairs as belong in the United States to Congress, and in Canada to the Dominion Parliament, and in Australia to the Commonwealth Parliament. If such a scheme provided, as it probably would provide, for an exclusive assignment to the local legislatures of local affairs, so as to debar the Imperial Parliament from interfering therewith, it would destroy the present Flexible British Constitution and substitute a Rigid one for it. Care would have to be taken to use proper legal means of extinguishing the general sovereign authority of the present Parliament, as for instance by directing the elections for the new Federal Legislature to be held in such a way as to effect a breach of continuity between it and the old Imperial Parliament, so that the latter should absolutely cease and determine when the new Constitution came into force. Upon this scheme also it would be for the Courts of Law to determine whether in any given case either the Federal or one of the Local Legislatures had exceeded its powers.
Some persons have proposed to combine both these proposals so as to make the four parts of the United Kingdom each return members, along with the Colonies, to a Pan-Britannic Federal Legislature, and to place the local legislatures of Scotland, for instance, or Wales, in a line with those of the Australian Commonwealth or New Zealand. On this plan also the British Constitution would become a Rigid one.
The difficulties, both legal and practical, with which these proposals, taken either separately or in conjunction, are surrounded, are greater than those who advocate them have as yet generally perceived.
Are New Constitutions Likely to Arise?
The remaining question, also somewhat speculative, relates to the prospects the future holds out to us of seeing new States with new Constitutions arise.
New States may arise in one of two ways, either by their establishment in new countries where settled and civilized government has been hitherto unknown, or by the breaking up of existing States into smaller ones, fragments of the old.
The opportunities for the former process have now been sadly curtailed through the recent appropriation by a few great civilized States of some two-thirds of the surface of the globe outside Europe. North America is in the hands of three such States. Central and South America, though the States are all weak and most of them small in population, are so far occupied that no space is left. The last chance disappeared when the Argentine Republic asserted a claim to Patagonia, where it would have been better that some North European race should have developed a new colony, as the Welsh settlers were doing on a small scale. Australia is occupied. Asia, excluding China and Japan in the East, and the two dying Musulman powers in the West, is virtually partitioned between Britain and Russia, with France holding a bit of the south-east corner. So Africa has now been (with trifling exceptions) divided between five European Powers (Portugal, England, France, Germany, Italy). Thus there is hardly a spot of earth left on which a new independent community can establish itself, as the Greeks founded a multitude of new commonwealths in the eighth and seventh centuries bc, and as the Teutonic invaders founded kingdoms during the dissolution of the Roman Empire.
If we turn to the possibilities of new States arising from the ruins of existing ones, whether by revolt or by peaceful separation, the prospect is not much more encouraging. There is indeed Turkey. Five out of the six new States that have arisen in Europe during this century have been carved out of the territories she claimed—viz. Greece, Rumania, Servia, Bulgaria, Montenegro: and there is material for one or two more in Europe and possibly for one or two in Asia, though it is more probable that both the Asiatic and European dominions of the Sultan will be partitioned among existing States than that new ones will spring out of them. The ill-compacted fabric of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy may fall to pieces. Parts of the Asiatic dominions of Russia may possibly (though in a comparatively distant future) become independent of the old Muscovite motherland, and the less civilized among the republics of Central and South America may be broken into parts or combined into new States, though the saying ‘plus cela change, plus c’est la même chose’ is even more true of those countries than of that to which it was originally applied, and gives little hope of interesting novelties. But on the whole the tendency of modern times is rather towards the aggregation of small States than towards the division of large ones. Commerce and improved facilities of communication are factors of constantly increasing importance which work in this direction, and this general tendency for the larger States to absorb the smaller forbids us to expect the rise, within the next few generations, of more than a few new Constitutions which will provide matter for study to the historian or lawyer of the future.
What type of Constitution will these new States, whatever they be and whenever they come, be disposed to prefer? Upon this point it is relevant to observe that all the new States that have appeared since 1850 have adopted Rigid Constitutions, with the solitary exception of Montenegro, which has no Constitution at all, but lives under the paternal autocracy of the temporal ruler who has succeeded the ancient ecclesiastical Vladika1 . Each of them, on beginning its independent life, has felt the need of setting out the lines of its government in a formal instrument which it has consecrated as fundamental by placing it above ordinary legislation. Similar conditions are likely to surround the birth of any new States, similar motives to influence those who tend their infancy. The only cases in which a Flexible Constitution is likely to arise would be the division of a country having such a Constitution into two or more fragments, each of which should cleave to the accustomed system; or the revolt of a people or community among whom, as they grow into a State, usages of government that had naturally sprung up might, when independence had been established, continue to be observed and so ripen into a Constitution. The chance that either of these cases will present itself is not very great. New States will more probably adopt documentary Constitutions, as did the insurgent colonies of England after 1776 and of Spain after 1811, and as the Christians of South-Eastern Europe did when they had rid themselves of the Turk. Upon the whole, therefore, it would seem that the future is rather with Rigid Constitutions than with those of the Flexible type.
It is hardly necessary to close these speculations by adding the warning that all prophecies in politics must be highly conjectural. Circumstances change, opinion changes; knowledge increases, though the power of using it wisely may not increase1 .
The subtlety of nature, and especially the intricacy of the relations she develops between things that originally seemed to lie wide apart, far surpasses the calculating or predicting wit of man. Accordingly many things, both in the political arrangements of the world and in the beliefs of mankind, which now seem permanent may prove transitory. Democracy itself, though most people treat it as a thing likely to grow stronger and advance further, may suffer an eclipse. Human nature no doubt remains. But human nature has clothed itself in the vesture of every sort of institution, and may change its fashions as freely in the future as it has done in the past.
NOTE TO ESSAY III
The races and nations of the world may, as respects the forms of Government under which they live, be distributed into four classes:—
I. Nations which have created and maintain permanent political institutions, allotting special functions to each organ of Government, and assigning to the citizens some measure of participation in the business of Government.
In these nations we discover Constitutions in the proper sense of the term. To this class belong all the States of Europe except Russia and Montenegro, and, outside Europe, the British self-governing Colonies, the United States and Mexico, the two republics of South Africa, Japan and Chili, possibly also the Argentine Republic.
II. Nations in which the institutions aforesaid exist in theory, but are seldom in normal action, because they are in a state of chronic political disturbance and mostly ruled, with little regard to law, by military adventurers. This class includes the republics of Central and South America, with the exception of Chili, and possibly of Argentina, whose condition has latterly been tolerably stable.
III. Nations in which, although the upper class is educated, the bulk of the population, being backward, has not begun to desire such institutions as aforesaid, and which therefore remain under autocratic monarchies. To this class belong Russia and Montenegro. Japan has lately emerged from it: and two or three of the newest European States might, but for the interposition of other nations, have remained in it.
IV. Nations which are, for one reason or another, below the level of intellectual life and outside the sphere of ideas which the permanent political institutions aforesaid presuppose and need for their proper working. This class includes all the remaining peoples of the world, from intelligent races like the Chinese, Siamese, and Persians, down to the barbarous tribes of Africa.
Constitutions, in the sense in which the term is used in the preceding Essay, belong only to the first class, and in a qualified sense to the second. In the modern world they are confined to Europe and her Colonies, adding Japan, which has imitated Europe. In the ancient world they were confined to three races, Greeks, Italians, and Phoenicians, to whom one may perhaps add such races as the Lycians, who had learnt from the Greeks. Their range is somewhat narrower than that of law, that is to say, there are peoples which, like the Musulmans of Turkey, Egypt, and Persia, have law, but have no Constitutions.
No race that has ever lived under a lost Constitutional Government has permanently lost it, except those parts of the Roman Empire which now form part of the Turkish Empire; and the Roman Empire, though its Government never ceased to be in a certain sense constitutional, ultimately extinguished the habit of self-government among its subjects.
[1 ]This Essay was delivered, in the form of two lectures, in 1884, and the names Flexible and Rigid were then suggested for the two types of Constitution here described. It has been enlarged and revised and brought up to date, but the substance remains the same.
[2 ]The interest which the English Constitution excited in Montesquieu may be compared with that which the Roman excited in Polybius.
[1 ]As to the countries or peoples in which Constitutions in the proper sense can be said to exist, see Note at the end of this Essay.
[1 ]It is unnecessary for the present purpose to call attention to the complication introduced in Switzerland by the application of the Referendum plan to ordinary laws.
[1 ]I. e. to change mechanically, not necessarily chemically.
[1 ]Except that of the South African Republic (Transvaal). The cases of the British self-governing colonies will be presently referred to.
[1 ]This point has been brought out with admirable force in Mr. Dicey’s Law of the Constitution.
[1 ]See as to this, Essay XIV, p. 716.
[2 ]I have allowed these lines to remain, though they were more applicable in 1884 than they are in 1900, when so many changes have been effected that arguments about the danger of changing the Constitution are less frequently heard.
[3 ]Ulpian in Digest, i. 1, 2.
[1 ]I use the term ‘despotism’ for convenience, but of course no monarchy is absolutely despotic, and least of all perhaps in the ruder ages; for monarchs are always amenable to public opinion, and most so when they are the leaders of a tribe or people in arms. The real distinction is between a government checked by religious sentiment consecrating ancient usage and by the fear of insurrection, and a government checked by well-established institutions and legal rules. As to Russia, it may be noted that though she has no Constitution in the proper sense, there are said to exist three Fundamental Laws of the Empire—that declaring the sovereign’s autocratic power, that requiring him (or her) to be a member of the Orthodox Church of the East, and that fixing the rule of succession to the throne.
[1 ]The history of England illustrates what is here said regarding small and large communities. The Folk Mot of the West Saxons when it passed into the Magnum Concilium of all England, though it remained in theory a Primary Assembly, was practically no longer a meeting of all freemen. It could not have continued to embody and safeguard the constitutional rights of the people but for the later invention of Representation, which made it again a virtually Popular though no longer a Primary Assembly.
[1 ]The two most important changes, the Union with Scotland and the Union with Ireland, were, however, among those most quickly carried through.
[1 ]Ἀρχαιοπλούτων δεσποτν πολλὴ χάρις, Aesch. Agam, 1002.
[1 ]This was written in 1884. Since that year sweeping changes have been made in the procedure of the House of Commons which have greatly curtailed the rights and opportunities of private members while increasing the powers of the Ministry of the day. They have not, however, made that House able to discharge all or nearly all the work that falls on it; and it is becoming (under the new rules) less and less careful in the exercise of its powers of voting money.
[2 ]This apprehension was often expressed between 1880 and 1885. Nothing has occurred since to justify it so far as the dictatorship of any single person is concerned; and it may have in great part arisen from the fact that from 1867 to 1885 the headships of both the two great parties had been vested in exceptionally vigorous and influential leaders. There can however be no doubt that the power of the Cabinet as against the House of Commons has grown steadily and rapidly: and it appears (1901) to be still growing.
[3 ]Of this supposed danger also much less is heard now than in 1884. The thing that was then called the ‘Birmingham Caucus’ has ceased to be used to terrify the timid.
[1 ]See Essay VII, p. 378.
[1 ]See as to this Constitution Essay VIII, p. 391. As to the Constitutions of the several Australian and other British colonies, reference may be made to the book of the late Sir Henry Jenkyns, entitled British Rule and Jurisdiction beyond the Seas, the publication of which is announced for a very early date.
[1 ]Observations on this topic may be found in the author’s American Commonwealth, chap. xxxvii.
[2 ]These documents are printed in Dr. S. R. Gardiner’s Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution. A concise account of the Instrument may be found in Mr. Goldwin Smith’s United Kingdom, vol. i. pp. 605-8.
[1 ]See Essay VII, p. 361.
[1 ]As to this Constitution see Essay VIII. Unlike the Constitution of Canada, it can be amended by the people of Australia without the aid of the Imperial Parliament.
[1 ]Soon after the above lines were written, the point they deal with came up in Parliament in a practical form. In the debate on the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1886 the question emerged whether Parliament could in constituting a legislature for Ireland and assigning to that legislature a certain sphere of action legally debar itself from recalling its grant or from legislating, upon matters falling within that sphere, over the head of the Irish legislature. It was generally agreed by lawyers that Parliament could not so limit its own powers, and that no statute it might pass could be made unchangeable, or indeed could in any way restrict the powers of future Parliaments.
[1 ]See Essay VIII.
[1 ]But the Constitution of Mississippi of 1890 was enacted by a Convention only and never submitted to the people. See as to the United States the author’s American Commonwealth, ch. xxxvii.
[2 ]On the whole subject of the modes of amending constitutions reference may be made to the valuable book of my friend M Charles Borgeaud, Professor at Geneva, Êtablissement et Revision des Constitutions. See also Dareste, Les Constitutions Modernes. I owe to these books, and especially to the former, most of the facts here given regarding the minor States.
[1 ]No Constitutional Convention has ever been held for revising the Federal Constitution of 1787-9, which was drafted by a Convention and adopted by the thirteen States in succession.
[1 ]This plan would have more chance of being favourably entertained were the Upper House now, as it was in 1760, less than two hundred strong. As it is now nearly as large as the House of Commons, with a majority of about fourteen to one belonging to one political party, the party which is in a permanent minority might feel that the chances are not equal.
[1 ]‘Neque leges neque senatus consulta ita scribi possunt, ut omnes casus qui quandoque inciderint comprehendantur.’—Iulianus in Digest i. 3, 10.
[1 ]A still more remarkable instance has been furnished, while these pages are passing through the press (June, 1901), by the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States in the group of cases which arose out of questions relating to the applicability of the Federal Constitution to the island of Puerto Rico, recently ceded by Spain to the United States. The Court had to deal with a constitutional question raising large issues of national policy regarding the application of the Federal Constitution to territories acquired by conquest and treaty: and its judgements in these cases (given in every case by majorities only) have expanded the Constitution, i.e. have declared it to have a meaning which may well be its true meaning, but which was not previously ascertained, and certainly by many lawyers not admitted, to be its true meaning.
[1 ]Something must, however, be allowed for the provisions which require large majorities for any amendment of the Constitution.
[1 ]The ‘People’s Charter’ of 1848 was called for as another such onward step Its Six Points were to be the basis of a democratic reconstruction of the government.
[1 ]They are much less heard now (1900), partly because the public mind is occupied with matters of a different order, partly because the political party which professes to be opposed to innovation has latterly commanded a large majority in the British Legislature.
[1 ]The British self-governing Colonies (except the two great federations, see ante, pp. 168-9) have constitutions which may be changed in all or nearly all points by their respective legislatures, but they are not independent States, and the power of the legislatures to alter the constitutions is therefore not complete.
[2 ]The Constitution of Italy, already referred to, is scarcely an exception.
[1 ]This autonomy is, however, not legally complete as regards the Colonies, for the mother country may, though she rarely does, disallow colonial legislation. In Canada the Dominion Legislature cannot affect the rights of the several Provinces, the power to do so remaining with the Imperial Parliament which passed the Confederation Act of 1867. So too under the Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth the rights of each colony are protected by the instrument of federation.
[2 ]Viz. the United Kingdom, the two great Colonial Federations (Canada and Australia), and four comparatively small self-governing Colonies, viz. New Zealand, Cape Colony, Natal, and Newfoundland.
[1 ]It may of course be observed (see p. 175, ante) that the British Parliament, while it continues to be elected as now, may be unable to divest itself of its general power of legislating for the whole Empire, and might therefore repeal the Act by which it had resigned certain matters to the Federal Assembly and resume them for itself. This is one of those apices iuris of which the Romans say non sunt iura; and in point of fact no Parliament can be supposed capable of the breach of faith which such a repeal would involve. The supposed legal difficulty might however, be avoided by some such expedient as that previously suggested.
[1 ]As to Italy, however, see above, pp. 171 and 176.