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CHAPTER XX 1: A few additional Observations on the right of Taxation which is lodged in the hands of the Representatives of the People. What kind of danger this Right may be exposed to. - 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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A few additional Observations on the right of Taxation which is lodged in the hands of the Representatives of the People. What kind of danger this Right may be exposed to.
The generality of Men, or at least of Politicians, seem to consider the right of taxing themselves, enjoyed by the English Nation, as being no more than a means of securing their property against the attempts of the Crown; while they overlook the nobler and more extensive efficiency of that privilege.
The right to grant subsidies to the Crown, possessed by the People of England, is the safe-guard of all their other liberties, religious and civil: it is a regular means conferred on them by the Constitution, of influencing the motion of the Executive power; and it forms the tie by which the latter is bound to them. In short, this privilege is a sure pledge in their hands, that their Sovereign, who can dismiss their Representatives at his pleasure, will never entertain thoughts of ruling without the assistance of these.
If, through unforeseen events, the Crown could attain to be independent on the People in regard to its supplies, such is the extent of its Prerogative, that, from that moment, all the means the People possess to vindicate their liberty, would be annihilated. They would have no resource left,—except indeed that uncertain and calamitous one, of an appeal to the sword; which is no more, after all, than what the most enslaved Nations enjoy.
Let us suppose, for instance, that abuses of power should be committed, which, either by their immediate operation, or by the precedents they might establish, should undermine the liberty of the subject. The People, it will be said, would then have their remedy in the Legislative power possessed by their Representatives. The latter would, at the first opportunity, interfere, and frame such Bills as would prevent the like abuses for the future. But here we must observe, that the Assent of the Sovereign is necessary to make those Bills become Laws; and if, as we have just now supposed, he had no need of the support of the Commons, how could they obtain his assent to laws thus purposely framed to abridge his authority?
Again, let us suppose that, instead of contenting itself with making slow advances to despotism, the Executive power, or its Ministers, should at once openly invade the liberty of the subject. Obnoxious men, Printers for instance, or political Writers, are destroyed, either by military violence, or, to do things with more security, with the forms of law. Then, it will be said, the Representatives of the People would impeach the persons concerned in those measures. Though unable to reach a King who personally can do no wrong, they at least would lay hold of those Men who were the immediate instruments of his tyrannical proceedings, and endeavour, by bringing them to condign punishment, to deter future Judges or Ministers from imitating them. All this I grant; and I will even add, that, circumstanced as the Representatives of the People now are, and having to do with a Sovereign who can enjoy no dignity without their assistance, it is most likely that their endeavours in the pursuits of such laudable objects would prove successful. But if, on the contrary, the King, as we have supposed, stood in no need of their assistance, and moreover knew that he should never want it, it is impossible to think that he would then suffer himself to remain a tame spectator of their proceedings. The impeachments thus brought by them would immediately prove the signal of their dismission; and the King would make haste, by dissolving them, both to revenge what would then be called the insolence of the Commons, and to secure his Ministers.
But even those are vain suppositions: the evil would reach much farther; and we may be assured that if ever the Crown was to be in a condition to govern without the assistance of the Representatives of the People, it would dismiss them for ever, and thus rid itself of an Assembly which, while it continued to be a clog on its power, could no longer be of any service to it. This Charles the First attempted to do when he found his Parliaments grew refractory, and the Kings of France really have done, with respect to the General Estates of their Kingdom.
And indeed if we consider the extent of the Prerogative of the King of England, and especially the circumstance of his completely uniting in himself all the executive and active powers in the State, we shall find that it is no exaggeration to say, that he has power sufficient to be as arbitrary as the Kings of France, were it not for the right of taxation, which, in England, is possessed by the People; and the only constitutional difference between the French and English Nations is, that the former can neither confer benefits on their Sovereign, nor hinder his measures; while the latter, how extensive soever the Prerogative of their King may be, can deny him the means of exerting it.
But here a most important observation is to be made; and I entreat the reader’s attention to the subject. This right of granting subsidies to the Crown, can only be effectual when it is exercised by one Assembly alone. When several distinct Assemblies have it equally in their power to supply the wants of the Prince, the case becomes totally altered. The competition which so easily takes place between those different Bodies, and even the bare consciousness which each entertains of its inability to hinder the measures of the Sovereign, render it impossible for them to make any effectual constitutional use of their privilege. “Those different Parliaments or Estates” (to repeat the observation introduced in the former part of this Work) “having no means of recommending themselves to their Sovereign, but their superior readiness in complying with his demands, vie with each other in grant-ing what it would not only be fruitless, but even dangerous to refuse. And the King, in the mean time, soon comes to demand as a tribute, a gift which he is confident to obtain.”2 In short, it may be laid down as a maxim, that when a Sovereign is made to depend, in regard to his supplies, on more Assemblies than one, he, in fact, depends upon none. And indeed the King of France is not independent on his People for his necessary supplies, any otherwise than by drawing the same from several different Assemblies of their Representatives: the latter have in appearance a right to refuse all his demands: and as the English call the grants they make to their Kings, Aids or Subsidies, so do the Estates of the French provinces call their’s Dons gratuits, or free gifts.
What is it, therefore, that constitutes the difference between the political situation of the French and English Nations, since their rights thus seem outwardly to be the same? The difference lies in this, that there has never been in England more than one Assembly that could supply the wants of the Sovereign. This has always kept him in a state, not of a seeming, but of a real dependence on the Representatives of the People for his necessary supplies; and how low soever the liberty of the Subject may, at particular times, have sunk, they have always found themselves possessed of a most effectual means of restoring it, whenever they have thought proper so to do. Under Henry the Eighth, for instance, we find the Despotism of the Crown to have been carried to an astonishing height; it was even enacted that the Proclamations of the King should have the force of law;3 a thing which even in France, never was so expressly declared: yet, no sooner did the Nation recover from its long state of supineness, than the exorbitant power of the Crown was reduced within its constitutional bounds.
To no other cause than the disadvantage of their situation, are we to ascribe the low condition in which the Deputies of the People in the Assembly called the General Estates of France, were always forced to remain.
Surrounded as they were by the particular Estates of those Provinces into which the Kingdom had been formerly divided, they never were able to stipulate conditions with their Sovereign; and instead of making their right of granting subsidies to the Crown serve to gain them in the end a share in Legislation, they ever remained confined to the naked pri-vilege of “humble Supplication and Remonstrance.”
Those Estates, however, as all the great Lords in France were admitted into them, began at length to appear dangerous; and as the King could in the mean time do without their assistance, they were set aside. But several of the particular Estates of the Provinces are preserved to this day: some, which for temporary reasons had been abolished, have been restored: nay, so manageable have popular Assemblies been found by the Crown, when it has to do with many, that the kind of Government we mention is that which it has been found most convenient to assign to Corsica; and Corsica has been made un pays d’ Etats(a) .4
That the Crown in England should, on a sudden, render itself independent on the Commons for its supplies, that is, should on a sudden successfully assume to itself a right to lay taxes on the Subject, by its own authority, is not certainly an event in any degree likely to take place, nor indeed that should, at this present time, raise any kind of political fear. But it is not equally impracticable that the right of the Representatives of the People might be-come invalidated, by being divided in the manner that has been just described.
Such a division of the right of the People might be effected several different ways. National calamities for instance, unfortunate foreign wars attended with loss of public credit, might suggest methods for raising the necessary supplies, different from those which have hitherto been used. Dividing the Kingdom into a certain number of parts, which should severally vote subsidies to the Crown, or even distinct assessments to be made by the different Counties into which England is now divided, might, in the circumstances we suppose, be looked upon as adviseable expedients; and these, being once introduced, might be continued afterwards.
Another division of the right of the People, much more likely to take place than those just mentioned, might be such as might arise from acquisitions of foreign dominions, the inhabitants of which should in time claim and obtain a right to treat directly with the Crown, and grant supplies to it, without the interference of the British Legislature.
Should any Colonies acquire the right we mention—should, for instance, the American Colonies have acquired it, as they claimed it, it is not to be doubted that the consequences that have resulted from a division like that we mention in most of the Kingdoms of Europe, would also have taken place in the British dominions, and that that spirit of competition which has been above described, would in time have manifested itself between the different Colonies. This desire of ingratiating themselves with the Crown, by means of the privilege of granting supplies to it, has even been openly confessed by an Agent of the American Provinces (a) , when, on his being examined by the House of Commons, in the year 1766, he said, “the granting Aids to the Crown, is the only means the Americans have of recommending themselves to their Sovereign.” And the events that have of late years taken place in America, render it evident that the Colonies would not have scrupled going any lengths to obtain favourable conditions at the expence of Britain and the British Legislature.
That a similar spirit of competition might be raised in Ireland, is also sufficiently plain from certain late events. And should the American Colonies have obtained their demands, and at the same time should Ireland and America have increased in wealth to a cer-tain degree, the time might have come at which the Crown might have governed England with the supplies of Ireland and America—Ireland with the supplies of England and of the American Colonies—and the American Colonies with the money of each other, and of England and Ireland.
To this it may be objected, that the supplies granted by the Colonies, even though joined with those of Ireland, never could have risen to such a height as to have counterbalanced the importance of the English Commons.—I answer, in the first place, that there would have been no necessity that the aids granted by Ireland and America should have risen to an equality with those granted by the British Parliament: it would have been sufficient, to produce the effects we mention, that they had only borne a certain proportion with these latter, so far as to have conferred on the Crown a certain degree of independence, and at the same time have raised in the English Commons a correspondent sense of self-diffidence in the exercise of their undoubted privilege of granting, or rather refusing, subsidies to the Crown.—Here it must be remembered, that the right of granting, or refusing, supplies to the Crown, is the only ultimate, forcible, privilege the British Parliament possess: by the Constitution they have no other, as hath been observed in the beginning of this Chapter: this circumstance ought to be combined with the absolute exclusiveness of the executive powers lodged in the Crown—with its prerogative of dissenting from the Bills framed by Parliament, and even of dissolving it (a) .
I shall mention in the second place, a remarkable fact in regard to the subject we are treating (which may serve to shew that Politicians are not always consistent, or even sagacious, in their arguments), which is, that the same persons who were the most strenuous advocates for granting to the American Colonies their demands, were at the same time the most sanguine in their predictions of the future wealth and greatness of America, and at the same time also, used to make frequent complaints on the undue influence which the Crown derives from the scanty supplies granted to it by the kingdom of Ireland (a) .5
Had the American Colonies fully obtained their demands, both the essence of the present English Government, and the condition of the English People, would certainly have been altered thereby: nor would such a change have been inconsiderable, but in proportion as the Colonies should have remained in a state of national poverty (b) .
[1. ]This chapter first appeared in the 1781 edition.
[2. ]See above, book 1, chapter 3, p. 46.
[3. ]For a discussion of this legislation, see above, book 1, chapter 7, p. 69, note a.
[(a) ]An idea of the manner in which the business of granting supplies to the Crown, was conducted by the States of the province of Britanny, under the reign of Lewis the Fourteenth, may be formed from several lively strokes to be met with in the Letters of Mad. de Sévigné, whose Estate lay in that Province, and who had often assisted at the holding of those States. The granting of supplies was not, it seems, looked upon as any serious kind of business. The whole time the States were sitting, was a continued scene of festivity and entertainment: the canvassing of the demands of the Crown was chiefly carried on at the table of the Nobleman who had been deputed from Court to hold the States; and every thing was commonly decided by a kind of acclamation. In a certain Assembly of those States, the Duke of Chaulnes, the Lord Deputy, had a present of fifty thousand crowns made to him, as well as a considerable one for his Duchess besides obtaining the demand of the Court: and the Lady we quote here, commenting somewhat jocularly on these grants, says, Ce n’est pas que nous soyons riches;mais nous sommes honnêtes, nous avons du courage, & entre midi & une heure, nous ne savons rien refuser à nos amis. “It is not that we are rich; but we are civil, we are full of courage, and, between twelve and one o’clock, we are unable to deny any thing to our friends.”
[4. ]Sovereignty over Corsica, which enjoyed a brief period of independence after 1755, was transferred to France under the terms of the 1768 Treaty of Versailles.
[(a) ]Doctor Franklin. [[Benjamin Franklin, in his service as a colonial agent, was based in London during the mid-1760s. His 1766 testimony to the House of Commons occurred at the time that Parliament debated its recent fiscal policy in North America, including the repeal of the 1765 Stamp Act and the adoption of the Declaratory Act.]]
[(a) ]Being with Doctor Franklin at his house in Craven-street, some months before he went back to America, I mentioned to him a few of the remarks contained in this Chapter, and, in general, that the claim of the American Colonies directly clashed with one of the vital principles of the English Constitution. The observation, I remember, struck him very much: it led him afterwards to speak to me of the examination he had undergone in the House of Commons; and he concluded with lending me the volume of the Collection of Parliamentary Debates, in which an account of it is contained. Finding the constitutional tendency of the claim of the Americans to be a subject not very generally understood, I added a few paragraphs concerning it, in the English Edition I some time after gave of this work; and being now about to give a third Edition of the same, I have thought it might not be amiss to write something more compact on the subject, and have accordingly added the present new Chapter, into which I have transferred the few additional paragraphs I mention, leaving in the place where they stood (pag. 45.) only the general observations on the right of granting subsidies, which were formerly in the French work. Several of the ideas, and even expressions contained in this Chapter, made their appearance in the Public Advertiser, about the time I was preparing the first Edition: I sent them myself to that Newspaper, under the signature of Advena. I mention this for the sake of those persons who may perchance remember having seen the sketch I allude to. [[To clarify De Lolme’s report in this note: many of the materials for this chapter were first composed before 1775, though they did not appear in his text until the 1781 edition. For his earlier and briefer treatment of this issue, see above, book 1, chapter 3, p. 46.]]
[(a) ]For instance, the complaints made in regard to the pensions on the Irish establishment.
[5. ]It is not fully clear to which politicians De Lolme refers in this paragraph. The most likely candidates are William Pitt and his parliamentary allies, who provided the strongest statements in defense of the resistance in North America to the Stamp Act and related tax legislation. But he may refer instead to Lord Rockingham and his Parliamentary Ministry, which secured the 1766 repeal of the controversial tax legislation and the enactment of the Declaratory Act confirming the legislative supremacy of the king and Parliament over the American colonies.
[(b) ]When I observe that no Man who wished for the preservation of the form and spirit of the English Constitution, ought to have desired that the claim of the American Colonies might be granted them, neither do I mean to say that the American Colonies should have given up their claim. [[The “claim of the American Colonies” to which De Lolme refers here and in his text (pp. 331–34 above) was the assertion made during the 1765–66 resistance to the Stamp Act that the colonial assemblies in North America (and not the British Parliament) enjoyed authority, with the British crown, to legislate on matters concerning the internal governance of the colonies. The wisdom of Ministers, in regard to American affairs, ought to have been constantly employed in making the Colonies useful to this Country, and at the same time, in hiding their subjection from them (a caution which is, after all, more or less used in every Government upon earth); it ought to have been exerted in preventing the opposite interests of Britain, and of America, from being brought to an issue, to any such clashing dilemma as would render disobedience on the one hand, and the resort to force on the other, almost surely unavoidable. The generality of people fancy that Ministers use a great depth of thought, and much forecast in their operations; whereas the truth is, that Ministers in all Countries, never think but of providing for present, immediate, contingencies; in doing which they constantly follow the open track before them. This method does very well for the common course of human affairs, and even is the safest; but whenever cases and circumstances of a new and unknown nature occur, sad blunders and uproar are the consequences. The celebrated Count Oxenstierna, Chancellor of Sweden, one day when his Son was expressing to him his diffidence of his own abilities, and the dread with which he thought of ever engaging in the management of public affairs, made the following Latin answer to him; Nescis, mî filî, quam parvâ cum sapientiâ regitur mundus (You do not know, my son, with what little wisdom the World is governed). De Lolme cites the maxim of Count Axel Gustafsson Oxenstierna (1583–1654), who served as chancellor of Sweden during the period of the Thirty Years’ War.