Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Constitution of England - The Constitution of England; Or, an Account of the English Government
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The Constitution of England - Jean Louis De Lolme, The Constitution of England; Or, an Account of the English Government 
The Constitution of England; Or, an Account of the English Government, edited and with an Introduction by David Lieberman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007).
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The Constitution of England
De Lolme left no record concerning why he chose England as his destination. But in the major publications that quickly followed his brief career in Genevan politics, he made clear that he had come to perceive in the English constitution a unique system of government in which political liberty was sustained in a manner that sharply contrasted with the experience of other states, not least the city from which he was banished. As De Lolme put the point in 1772 in his first major publication in the English language, “I have studied History and seen most of the Republics of Europe, and I do not hesitate to affirm that there is, or has been, no Government upon Earth where the property, and especially the person, of the Subject, is by far so secure as it is” in England.7 The exploration and analysis of this defining theme received its influential rendering in 1775, in The Constitution of England; or, An Account of the English Government, a translation and enlargement of the original French edition.
De Lolme’s subtitle—“An account of the English government in which it is compared both with the Republican form of government and occasionally with the other Monarchies in Europe”—indicates the scope and ambition of the study.8 His goal was both to explain how the English constitution produced the liberty for which it was deservedly celebrated and to deploy this information to explain why liberty proved so notoriously vulnerable elsewhere. Having experienced firsthand in Geneva the ease with which political power could be manipulated and abused, he turned to the sharply contrasting case in which “Liberty has at length disclosed her secret to Mankind, and secured an Asylum to herself.”9
De Lolme’s famous explanation for this exceptional situation centered on the manner in which public power had been distributed into separate and balanced institutional hands, such that the “freedom of the Constitution” was the product of “an equilibrium between the ruling Powers of the State.”10 This thesis, presented most compactly in the opening chapters of book 2, dominated all the historical examples and political arrangements he assembled for discussion. In England, executive power had become the exclusive monopoly of a hereditary monarch; legislative power of a bicameral Parliament. Both powers in themselves were formidable. But the executive, being utterly dependent on the legislative power for its funding, was “like a ship completely equipped, but from which the Parliament can at pleasure draw off the water, and leave it aground.”11 The members of the legislature, though able to control the funding of the executive, were equally unable to exercise the executive power itself. They thus created laws always knowing that another power would be enforcing their enactments, even over themselves. “All Men in the State,” De Lolme explained, “whatever may be their rank, wealth, or influence,” recognized “that they must . . . continue to be Subjects; and are thus compelled really to love, to defend, and to promote, those laws which secure the liberty of the Subject.”12
In treating English liberty in these terms, De Lolme followed Montesquieu—“a man of so much genius”13 —whose 1748 De l’esprit des lois likewise presented the English constitution as a unique political form and the generic guide to the nature of political liberty. The account involved a substantial reinterpretation of the institutional components of England’s political system.14 Whereas previous writers related liberty to the relative weakness of the Crown in comparison with the Continent’s more absolute monarchs, De Lolme emphasized the remarkable executive capacity of English kings, “sufficient to be as arbitrary as the Kings of France” but for the powerful constraint imposed by “the right of taxation . . . possessed by the People.”15 England’s constitutional balance was conventionally understood in terms of its tripartite legislature, the King-in-Parliament, which combined elements of democracy (House of Commons), aristocracy (House of Lords), and monarchy (king)—a balanced and “mixed constitution” of classical proportions. De Lolme focused on a different equilibrium that balanced legislative capacity against other political power. Similarly, where traditional accounts presented the democratic status of the House of Commons as the linchpin of English liberty, De Lolme again firmly reoriented the discussion. The significance of the Commons’ legislative power was its control over “the initiative in legislation.” This reversed the dominant model of ancient and modern republics, whereby the legislative power of the populace was limited to the approval or rejection of measures proposed by the powerful.16 Furthermore, the most significant democratic elements of the constitution were not parliamentary elections, but the “institution of the Trial by Jury” and “the Liberty of the Press,” which rendered England “a more Democratical State than any other we are acquainted with.”17
De Lolme also followed Montesquieu concerning the nature of political liberty itself. Many “writers of the present age”—not least his fellow countryman Rousseau—identified liberty with the power to participate in lawmaking and therefore located political liberty in the institutions of republican self-government. In contrast, De Lolme identified liberty with personal security under law: “in a state where the laws are equal for all, and sure to be executed.”18 It was this emphasis on the legally preserved security of the subject that made the operations of law and the constitutional structuring of “the judicial power” so central to the analysis of political freedom. De Lolme, admittedly, did not include judicial power within the key constitutional equilibrium between legislative and executive authority. Nonetheless, The Constitution of England devoted lavish attention to the role of legal process and independent courts in England’s political development. Many of these topics concerned matters that De Lolme acknowledged to fall outside those specifically constitutional arrangements by which “the Powers that concur to form the Government constantly balance each other.”19 But they were fundamental to the analysis of constitutional freedom, since so much of England’s liberty depended not only on those “very extensive” laws that defined the subject’s liberties, but equally on “the manner in which they are executed.”20
Having revealed the logic of England’s political order, De Lolme was equipped to explain why liberty had proved so precarious in other governments. No target was so momentous as republican Rome, often in early modern political theory the very model of political achievement and public freedom. Ancient Rome figured as the ever-present negative counterpoint to De Lolme’s treatment of England. Despite the numerous expedients and violent conflicts that characterized Rome’s efforts to preserve its liberty, none had succeeded in protecting the citizenry from the abuses and manipulations of the politically powerful. Their failure could not be understood in the common terms of corruption through imperial growth, commercial luxury, or, later, the excessive ambitions of its leaders. The problems were structural and foundational. The liberty of the citizen was violated because public power always combined those legislative and executive capacities which needed separation and balance.
So extensive was De Lolme’s critique of the rival model of republican liberty that he feared his study might be misunderstood as an endorsement of “every kind of Monarchy.”21 Instead, the analysis of England’s constitutional logic also disclosed the structural defects of the European monarchies and the failings of alternative strategies for combining royal prerogatives and political freedom. England’s constitution ensured that the power of an English king operated “by means totally different” from that of other monarchs, who enjoyed both legislative and executive authority.22 Elsewhere, the effort to prevent the abuse of royal power typically involved a strategy of taking powers from the king and distributing them to the nobility or “the Representatives of the People.”23 But this simply replaced one institutional mixture of legislative and executive authority with another, and thus substituted royal tyranny with tyranny from other sites of power. “It may be laid down as a maxim,” De Lolme maintained, “that Power, under any form of Government, must exist, and be trusted somewhere.”24 It was the now-revealed secret of The Constitution of England to show how vast executive power could be concentrated in a single monarchic hand, where it could be vigilantly watched and balanced by a no less potent legislature.
[7. ]A Parallel Between the English Constitution and the Former Government of Sweden (London, 1772), 26.
[8. ]In the fourth edition (1784), De Lolme slightly modified his subtitle by deleting the qualifying phrase “occasionally with.” The change reflected the expansion of his comparative treatment of the European monarchies; see the discussion below on pp. xix–xxi.
[9. ]See below, book 2, chapter 21, p. 342.
[10. ]Ibid., chapter 1, p. 139.
[11. ]See below, book 1, chapter 6, p. 65.
[12. ]See below, book 2, chapter 1, p. 148, note a.
[13. ]Ibid., chapter 18, p. 317, note a.
[14. ]I summarize here an interpretation of eighteenth-century constitutional theory set out more fully in my “The Mixed Constitution and the Common Law,” in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, ed. Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[15. ]See below, book 2, chapter 20, p. 329.
[16. ]Ibid., chapter 4, p. 162.
[17. ]Ibid., chapter 17, p. 280, note a.
[18. ]Ibid., chapter 5, p. 170.
[19. ]See below, book 1, chapter 12, p. 115.
[20. ]See below, book 2, chapter 16, p. 231.
[21. ]Ibid., chapter 17, p. 260.
[22. ]Ibid., p. 302.
[23. ]See below, book 2, chapter 19, p. 322.
[24. ]Ibid., p. 320.