Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIII.: hannover—former states. - Travels in the North of Germany, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER XIII.: hannover—former states. - Thomas Hodgskin, Travels in the North of Germany, vol. 1 
Travels in the North of Germany, describing the Present State of the Social and Political Institutions, the Agriculture, Manufactures, Commerce, Education, Arts and Manners in that Country, particularly in the Kingdom of Hannover, (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1820). Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
Six different states in Hannover.—Composition of those of Kalenberg; of Grubenhagen; of Lüneburg; of Bremen and Verden; of Hoya and Diepholz; of Hildesheim; of Friezland.—Their powers and privileges; in the fourteenth century; in the eighteenth century.—Alterations.—Causes.—Destruction of the clergy.—The dependence of the nobles.—The servility of magistrates of towns.—Resemblance to Scotland.—The power of the sovereign increased.—Points of difference between the parliament of Great Britain and the states of Germany.
We have been so long accustomed to speak of ourselves as the only free people of Europe, that it was rather with astonishment the following passage in an historian before quoted was read. Spittler nearly begins his work by saying, “When King George III. wishes to lay a new general tax on the whole of his German subjects, who, at most, do not exceed the tenth part of his islanders, he is obliged previously to discuss the affair with six different parliaments; and each of these parliaments is composed of several classes of members, who have equally important rights, and equally secured privileges. The consent of all these parliaments, how different soever may be their rights, must on this point be demanded, and at last the people of the Land Hadeln must also be particularly solicited.” Six different parliaments for such a territory and population as belonged to Hannover when the quotation was written, 1786, must have formed so numerous an aristocracy as to be at least half way to a democracy.
Numerous legislative assemblies do not, however, ensure wise laws. Many instances may be found amongst the acts of legislative bodies, which they made for their own interest, and which have been to it immensely pernicious, even according to the narrow view which estimates good and evil by greater or less wealth, power, or influence. All the laws, for example, which have been made by the nobles of Hannover to secure to themselves alone the possession of certain offices, have only damped the general spirit of enterprise in their countrymen; have prevented them from joining in commerce; have promoted the poverty of the whole; and have degraded the nobles themselves, from being high-spirited independent gentlemen, to be the dependent servants of the sovereign.
The states of Hannover continued to meet and to act till the occupation of the country by the French, and I shall here endeavour to describe how they were composed, and explain what was the extent of their powers.
The states of Kalenberg and Göttingen were united into one body, and they consisted of three distinct orders; 1st, The clergy, consisting of nine members; 2d, The nobility, one hundred and sixtythree members; 3d, Deputies of the towns, twenty members. The whole of these numbers rarely met together, but they were all regarded as having a right to assemble. The right belonged to the nobles from their possessing certain properties, and to the clergy and towns from custom. All these three bodies were, each of them, at one time, stronger than the sovereign, and they would give him nothing but just what they pleased. For some years, however, prior to the occupation of the country by the French, two permanent committees, Ausschusse, of the states, managed the whole of their business.
The first was composed of three deputies from the clergy; nine from the nobles, and eight from the towns. Three of the noble members of this committee were called land and treasury councillors; the other six were named deputies from the nobles. The smaller committee consisted of seven members, all of whom were also members of the larger. It was composed of one deputy from the clergy, three from the nobility, and three from the towns. And this smaller committee, excluding the deputy from the town of Hannover, formed what was called the Treasury College. It nowhere appears distinctly what were the particular duties of these committees and this college, further than that the larger committee exercised all the rights, to be afterwards described, attributed to the states, and that the treasury college had the possession and the management of the monies levied as taxes. These committees were both permanent, and had the power of meeting whenever they thought it right to meet.
The three orders deliberated and voted each separately, and the vote of each order was equal. In fact, the deputies from the towns frequently made conditions for themselves apart from the other orders. They decided what portion of any certain tax they would take on themselves. The consent of all these three orders was necessary, rigidly speaking, to levy new taxes, but the consent of two was often regarded as enough. Latterly all the deputies of the clergy and of the towns were members of the states by virtue of the offices they held. Thus the Abbot of Loccum and the first or second bürgermeister of the towns were members, by virtue of their offices. The deputies from the nobles were, however, elected by the whole body of the nobles divided into districts. All held their places for life.
The states of Grubenhagen were also composed of three orders, but they had no committees, and they voted according to numbers, not according to orders. The clergy were two in number, the nobles nine, and the deputies from the towns four. One of the noble properties, and, consequently, one vote, belonged to the crown, and was always in possession of an officer appointed by it. When the owner of one of the noble properties was a minor, he was not allowed to vote. In 1802 these states were united to those of Kalenberg, and then they deputed a certain number of members to the two committees, which have been mentioned, namely, to the larger committee, one member from the clergy, one from the nobility, and two from the towns. The towns alone sent one deputy to the smaller committee and treasury college.
The deputies from three religious corporations, from three towns, and the owners of one hundred and ninety-five noble properties, composed the states of the province of Lüneburg. The noble properties were divided into old and new, the latter having had, since records were kept, the privileges of nobility given to them. The nobles had most power. They were divided into four districts, and all the owners of noble property in each district, whether they themselves were noble or not, had the right of voting for the election of two members for each district. There was in this province a permanent college of what may be called provincial councillors, Landraths Collegium. It consisted of nine members, one of whom was president, and had the title of Lands-schaft Director. When a vacancy took place in this college, the eight remaining persons and the eight deputies from the nobility together, elected a person to fill the vacancy. If there were two vacancies, one of the deputies selected by lot went away, so that the numbers both of the deputies and the members of the college might be equal. When the place of director was vacant, the members of the college elected from amongst themselves three persons, whom they presented to the sovereign, and he appointed which of those three he pleased to the office of director. He became, by virtue of this appointment, possessed of the title and emoluments of Abbot of St Michael’s in Lüneburg. The eight deputies from the nobles and the college of provincial councillors elected also four noble deputies and two treasury councillors. It was a rule that the whole of these persons, the deputies of the nobles, the members of the college, and the treasury councillors, must be noblemen, and possessed of a noble property in the province. The treasury college consisted of two deputies of the nobles and one from the towns. After these preliminary remarks, the reader may comprehend what is meant by saying, that when the states of Lüneburg met to grant taxes, or for other business, they consisted of the college of provincial councillors, of four deputies from the nobility, and the three members of the treasury college. The deputies from two religious corporations, and those from the three towns of Lüneburg, Uelzen, and Celle, sat at a separate table. But the votes were given according to numbers, and the votes of all were equal.
When Bremen and Verden were secularized for Sweden in the seventeenth century, the states of these provinces, which formerly consisted of the prebends and chapters of the towns of Bremen and Hamburg, of members from several other religious corporations, of nobility and of deputies from the towns, were reduced to the two latter only. The town of Bremen was separated from the province, and the other clergy ceased to be of importance. Before the peace of Westphalia, the states had regular meetings in both provinces, in which their votes were given according to numbers, and not according to orders. Since that period, they have been united together, and till the occupation of the country by the French, the business of the states was conducted by what was called a permanent college of provincial councillors. It consisted of a nobleman president, who was also director of the convent of Neuen-Walde, of six deputies from the nobility of Bremen, of one from the nobility of Verden, and of five learned deputies, or jurisconsults, who were sent by the towns of Stade, Buxtehude, and Verden. The number of properties in the two provinces, which were noble or gave a right to vote, was seventy-five. In former times, the owners of free property not noble, situated in the marsh lands on the Elbe, claimed and exercised the right of sending deputies to these states; but this right was latterly refused to them, though they were allowed to have a sort of representative who might appeal for them to the government against any taxes levied by the states.
The states of the provinces of Hoya and Diepholz had long been formed, like those of Kalenberg, into two committees, the greater was composed of three noble provincial councillors, and five deputies from the nobles, of two deputies from the owners of free property not noble, and of four deputies from the towns. There were, therefore, eight noble persons, and six persons not noble. The smaller committee was composed of the three noble provincial councillors, two deputies from the nobles, one from the free people, and four from the towns. The treasury college was composed of the three noble provincial councillors, and two deputies from the towns, or, as they were called, learned treasury deputies.
Five only of the provincial states or parliaments have here been described; the sixth province was Lauenburg, but a very small part of which now belongs to Hannover. Its states resembled in their leading points those of the other provinces.
The new provinces which Hannover has acquired seem, like the old possessions, to have had something also like parliaments. The sovereign of Hildesheim was a Catholic prince-bishop, and the states were composed of deputies from seven clerical corporations, of the nobility, and of deputies from four cities. From the differences and disputes which took place between the states of this province and Prussia, when this latter power, in its grasping ambition, seized Hildesheim, there is reason to believe they had always maintained much consideration; and that the power of the prince-bishop had not exceeded their own. A German proverb says, “Es lasse sich unter dem Krumm-stab gut wohnen.” “It is good living under the crozier;” and the general populousness of this province, a perfectly free corn trade, which the inhabitants always enjoyed till the occupation of the country by the Prussians, and the power of the states, prove that the government of the bishop of Hildesheim had been mild like that of his brother prince-bishops. At Magdeburg I left it to others to decide whether the dominion of the crozier or that of the sword was the greatest evil, but I may now affirm, from this proverb, and from a glance of countries which have long been governed by the sword, that it is by far the greatest evil.
Friezland had a parliament, or states, in which the third order, the possessors of property not noble, had a very great influence. This order had one hundred and eighty deputies, and the towns fifteen. They gave only such taxes as they pleased, and they kept the management of those which they did give in their own hands.
Such were the former states; they appear in general to have had the following power and privileges.
As individuals, the clergy and nobility possessed the power of nominating, and the sovereign of confirming, the persons who were to administer justice in those districts in which the courts belonged, either to a clerical corporation, or a nobleman. The power of these courts, and consequently of the individual clergy and nobles, extended not only to the administration of justice, but to all things connected with police, with the military, or with the government, or with the church. It was their business to make known and carry into execution all the laws and all the orders from the sovereign. They were free from most taxes. The nobles alone had the right to sport, and to them alone were secured many of the most important and wealthy offices in the country.
When assembled as a parliament, or in their legislative capacity, they had no control over the taxes levied for the empire, Reichs-steuer, for the circle, Kreis-steuer, and for the dowry of the monarch’s daughters, Prinzessin-steuer. But over all other taxes they held complete control. None could be levied without their approbation. They presented, but it belonged to the sovereign to confirm the presentation, to all places connected either with the collection or the expenditure of the taxes, and they took them into their custody when they were collected. Few alterations could be made in the administration of justice without the approbation of the states; but on this subject there is nothing precise; there being regulations extant issued by the government alone without the consent of the states, that had all the effects of laws, without the name.∗
Before the existence of standing armies, the states were consulted as to levying and disciplining the troops. Since then, however, they have had nothing to do with any thing relative to war. At a former period, no alteration was made in any thing relative to the church without the consent of the states, and they possessed the presentation to many appointments connected with the administration of justice. They appointed, for example, to some of the judges’ places in the Court of Appeals at Celle, and to many others.
They appear to have had stated times of coming together, but might be also assembled at other times by the necessities, or by the will of the sovereign. When the whole states met, they generally separated when they had finished the business for which they had assembled, or they were dismissed at the pleasure of the Crown. It was only at the conclusion or dissolution of the assembly that what it had done became known, which was then published under the name of Landtags-abschied, dismissal, or leave-taking of the states; so named, because it was customary for them to present their report when they took their leave of their sovereign. In later times, it appears that at least one of the committees and the treasury college remained always assembled.
The powers of all the states of the different provinces were in some measure different from one another, and all were different from themselves at different times. The following passage shews their power in the year 1392. “Out of the nobles living between the Deister and the Leine, and from those dwelling on the Aller, five were elected; three came from Lüneburg and the country about the Jetze, the town-council of Lüneburg sent four councillors, and four were sent from the towns of Hannover and Uelzen. The times and place where this committee of the states should assemble were prescribed, and the meeting was to divide itself, a part in Hannover, a part in Lüneburg, in order that complaints out of every district might be more easily brought before the two divided parts. This committee was the inexorable guarantee of all the conditions of the treaty between the prince and his subjects, the judge between him and any complaining party, and when the fulfilment of their sentence was postponed they executed it themselves.”
“If any one of the prelates, nobles, or citizens, believed himself injured by the prince, and the prince’s officer, or even the prince himself, did not do him justice, the injured party, when he did not choose to wait for the half yearly meeting of this committee, applied to the nearest nobleman or city which belonged to the committee, and this person or city was by law obliged, after an examination with the next nearest member of the committee, to make known the complaint before fourteen days to the prince, who must give satisfaction within fourteen days, or he ought to go without farther notice to Hannover, and there remain till the hardship was removed.
“If, in this period, neither the complainant was satisfied, nor the promised residence of the prince in Hannover took place, the town-council of Lüneburg and this committee were authorized to sequester all the revenues of the prince till the complaint was removed, or the money repaid which the states had granted the prince. Should the prince however refuse, or prevent this satisfaction from being made, the committee were authorized to call to arms all the persons who had contributed to this money, to guard against injustice, and to protect all whom the prince oppressed. Eight nobles, therefore, and eight deputies of the towns, were endowed with the character of judges between the prince and the people.”∗
It must be remarked, that these observations apply only to a portion of the present dominions of Hannover, but they also give a picture of the general character and power of the states in the fourteenth century. They shew clearly enough that the practice of governing which has lately been followed in Germany by the mere will of the prince, then had no existence whatever. He was merely endowed with a little more authority than any other individual nobleman, but not with so much as the whole people.
The above quotation shews, that the states had a power equal or superior to the power of the English parliament at the same period. At that same period, and even down to the seventeenth century, all the towns of any importance, such as Hannover, Lüneburg, Göttingen, and Brunswick, were in a great measure independent of the sovereign. They owed him obedience as their superior liege-lord, but they were often more powerful than he, and openly set him at defiance. They exercised absolute sovereignty; they did all sorts of acts which would now be called rebellion, and which would now be classed and punished as the most heinous crimes. Such is the changeable character of that morality of our race, which is attempted to be made unchangeable by positive laws. The towns coined their own money; they levied and disbursed their own taxes; they made treaties with one another, and with strange princes; they made laws for themselves; and when they levied forces, and resisted the oppressions of their sovereign, or chastised the nobles for pillaging, the war which they made was not regarded as either unjust or unnecessary.
The following account of these states is given by Dr Karl Venturini, at a later period, 1776:— “Who shall now struggle against the power of the crown? The prelates, who were indebted to court favour for their prebends, were naturally dependent on the government; and though they were learned in dogmas, and the history of the church, that gave them no well-grounded and perfect information respecting the constitution of the country. The deputies of the towns, instead of being the unsuspected organs of the will of their constituents, were machines in the hands of government, which did not want means to punish them severely—very severely, if they wished to steer the state-ship in any other manner than its commander thought good. How could it then be otherwise, than that in these two classes the spirit of indolence and submission would be predominant? From whom else could the land hope for relief, but from the class of the nobles?
But what relief?—nearly all the deputies of the nobles were in the service of the crown. They were all related to one another by blood or by marriage. They only struggled to preserve their own freedom from taxation. And if this were preserved, they were perfectly submissive to the government, from whose favour there were no more benefits to expect.”∗
How little the ancient rights of the states were latterly regarded, is shewn by the ministry of Hannover incorporating, in 1794, the regiments levied for the defence of the land with the regular army. The states, particularly those of Kalenberg and Lüneburg, opposed this, but they were told, that “the sovereign’s power, relative to war and arms, admitted of no limitation; and they were silent.” On another occasion, when the inhabitants of Hannover were discontented because some debts which were due from the English commissariat were not paid, the states displayed an intention of bringing these claims before the English parliament; but they were told, “the sovereign would regard such a step very unfavourably,” and here the matter rested.∗
The only act of injustice of which I have read or heard of, as committed by the government of Hannover, grew out of the measure of incorporating the militia with the regular army. The Herr von Berlepsch had made himself conspicuous by his opposition on this, and on several other occasions, and had particularly excited the resentment of the ministry, by making a proposition to the states, that they should endeavour to establish a neutrality for Hannover, and should declare that they were not disposed to convert a war made by the chief of the nation into a national war. This was treated as a design to separate the country from the elector. The states were blamed by the ministry for listening to such a proposal; and Mr von Berlepsch was not only dismissed from his situation as a judge, Hofrichter, but was also put out of the assembly of the states. He appealed against the conduct of the government to the imperial chamber at Vienna. A judgment, which, in the vigour of imperial power, would have been immediately fulfilled, but which the power of the King of Great Britain enabled the elector of Hannover to set at nought, was pronounced in his favour. He was to be restored to his situation; but the imperial herald who was bringing the rescript was chased with indignity from the gates of Hannover.∗ Such was the alteration in the states between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, that the ministry latterly regarded them as the servants of the crown. They were no longer the judges betwixt it and the people, but an instrument for governing the latter.
In Riesebeck’s Travels through Germany, page 8, an instance of the opposition of the states of Wirtemberg to the will of the sovereign is mentioned.† In the same work it is stated, that the elector of Saxony had a privy purse, but that the taxes were levied and controlled by the states. Their present power has been mentioned. In the little county of Wernigerode also, states are said always to have been in use, in which the chiefs of the villages had a right to a seat and a vote. There was a period when states or parliaments were universal and powerful in Germany. Nor do they, except in Prussia and Oldenburg, appear any where to have grown into absolute disuse, although their powers were every where much weakened and diminished.
Considered as a system of representation, the states of the different countries of Germany were undoubtedly as perfect as the parliament of Great Britain. All the landed property of the country, and all the commercial wealth, were completely represented by the nobles and the deputies of the towns. Property is adequately represented in both countries. So far as the form of the system went, it might have been a priori expected, that the states of Germany should have maintained their power, as the parliament of Great Britain has maintained and increased its power. But the former sank into insignificance, while the latter has become sole legislative and all-governing. In Germany, the power of the sovereigns, and, in Britain, that of the parliament, became pre-eminently great. It may be worth the trouble to throw a hasty glance over some of the causes which reduced the states of Germany to insignificance, and made the difference between them and the parliament of Great Britain now so remarkable.
Owing to various causes, our parliament has been subjected to many changes. Its constitution has been frequently, and, in some instances, entirely changed. This has adapted it to changes in the manners and modes of thinking in the people; and, without rendering it in its form a more accurate representation of all classes, has made it a better instrument to effect the welfare of the whole. But the German states, till a very recent period, continued unaltered. They were adapted to the fourteenth century, and were necessarily inefficient in the eighteenth. Spittler says,∗ “That among all the powers of Germany, there is hardly one whose constitution, during an unbroken succession of 500 years, has been so little disturbed by the powerful hand of a reformer, as that of the German dominions of his Majesty King George the Third of Great Britain, nor is there any one which has so many intricacies that nobody has ever attempted to simplify.” The same fact appears true of most of the political institutions of Germany. Since the Reformation the sovereigns may have changed their ministers, or altered the uniforms of their guards, or introduced some new arrangements into their cabinets; and they have gone on constantly augmenting their power; but the people, since that period, as if satisfied with the efforts they then made, have never, till within a few years, paid any attention to their governments, and they have continued unchanged in form. It has been in some measure, therefore, from wanting the interference of the people—from not being occasionally reformed, that the states of Germany have dwindled into insignificance. The spirit which animated them fled, while the forms remained, disguising slavery with the attributes of freedom.
It is since the Reformation that the power of the sovereigns of Germany has most increased. The thirty years’ war which followed that event reduced many flourishing towns to poverty, augmented the power of a few successful princes and, gave them the command of standing and mercenary armies. The people, who had been plundered, and almost reduced to despair by the miseries of so prolonged a contest, surrendered themselves to the guidance of the princes. The destruction of many cities had deprived liberty of her principal support.
The Reformation in Germany also completely destroyed the clergy as an independent part of the states. The whole of their revenues in the Protestant countries were taken from them, and they were only allowed a sufficiency for subsistence. The greater part of their wealth and their power fell into the hands of the sovereigns, who thus added to their own power all that which belonged to one of the three members, and perhaps the most powerful one of the states. In countries to which the Reformation did not extend, the clergy necessarily became alarmed by the fate of their brethren; and they united themselves more closely to the crown. In England there was such a reformation in religion as satisfied the people, and the church retained its wealth. It was not reduced to actual dependance on the crown.
In this point there is a resemblance between Scotland and Germany. In both these countries the wealth of the clergy was appropriated to individuals, or to the sovereign, and their separate independent existence as a political body destroyed; and in both, the power of the sovereign was proportionally augmented more than in England.
A law in Germany called the Meyer ordinance, or law, and also custom, very generally regulate and limit the power of the landholder over the peasant. While this latter has an hereditary right to a small spot of land, the former has a right only to a certain portion of services or rent, which cannot be augmented. This law, by compelling the land to remain divided into small parcels, has impeded the advancement of agriculture, and has constantly limited the wealth of the nobles to the incomes they possessed three or four centuries ago. They could not lump several farms together, nor could they exact a greater rent for their land than was already paid them. Their own prejudices prevented them engaging in commerce, and they had no other way to acquire wealth, or to preserve superiority to their families, but to hire themselves as soldiers, or as servants, to the sovereigns. The impossibility of the nobles increasing their revenue, and their desire to participate in all those luxuries of modern times,—to enjoy which is a mark of superiority,—was the great means of reducing them to a dependance on the sovereign for places and pensions. The nobility of England have not only remained rich from their property having increased in value as they lived more luxuriously, but the mass of their wealth has been considerably augmented by their intermarrying in families grown opulent by commerce, and by many of these latter having been added to the nobility. These circumstances, which are unknown in Germany, have saved the nobility of Britain from becoming, like the nobility of Germany, dependant on the sovereign.
The third order of the German states, the deputies of the towns, were in general the magistrates of the towns, who were originally tradesmen, and interested in the welfare of their fellow citizens, and in the honour of their city. As these magistrates had to administer the laws, when a foreign law was introduced into Germany, it became necessary one or more of them should study this law, or be a jurisconsult. In a little time they all became jurisconsults, and the whole influence of the magistracy fell into the hands of a sect or profession. The magistrates had then no means of acquiring wealth but by their profession as lawyers, and they became dependant on the sovereign, from being willing to unite any emoluments he could give them with those which they derived from their situation as magistrates.
Learned men necessarily regarded common tradesmen as very unqualified to judge of their fitness to fill the office of magistrates. They were countenanced in this opinion by that ignorance which admires what it cannot comprehend, and the magistrates were suffered to elect the magistrates. To ensure their power, they joined with the sovereigns against the citizens, and they effectually succeeded in taking from the latter all control over their own concerns. They necessarily lost by this, however, all the consequence and power which is derived from representing the opinions of a large body of men, and of being supported by them. They transferred the people to the sovereign, and they themselves dwindled into mere individual lawyers, whom the sovereign could command or buy when he pleased.
There is here another point of coincidence between Scotland and Germany. In both countries a foreign law was introduced different from the laws and customs of the people, which, in both, rendered the people entirely dependant on the interpreters of that law. By this means the mass of the people in Germany were gradually excluded from all participation in the administration of the law, and of government, and gradually reduced to such a state of comparative ignorance of political matters, as to render it dangerous, at a later period, to allow them to have any influence whatever in them. Thus it has ever been. Some vile state system degrades men, and then this very degradation is made the plea for continuing the system.
Government in Germany appears always to have been considered as a mere attribute of property. All its duties and its rights belonged to clerical corporations, to towns, and to individual nobles, as the owners of certain estates. The practice of dividing their properties, which so long kept the sovereigns of Germany weak and dependant on the nobles and towns, was generally abolished in the seventeenth century. When the right of primogeniture was introduced, the sovereigns not only transmitted their own properties undivided, but, by the extinction of other branches of their family, the number of the sovereigns diminished, and the power of each one became augmented by his uniting in his own hands several sovereignties. Thus the sovereigns of Prussia, of Hannover, of Austria, gradually acquired the power of several provinces and principalities, without the people or the states of those provinces becoming so united as to form any counterpoise to the increased power of the sovereigns. The revenues of the sovereigns of Germany were principally derived from landed property, and, as they acquired more territory, they necessarily added to their revenues. This gave them still greater power. The states of Kalenberg or of Brandenburg were fully competent to contend with the Prince of Kalenberg or the Margrave of Brandenburg, but their power was not equal to that of the Elector of Hannover or the King of Prussia. This was evidently a great cause of the loss of power by the states. They retained more power under the sovereigns of Wirtemberg and Saxony, who increased their dominions very little, than they did under the emperors of Austria, under the kings of Prussia, or under the electors of Hannover.
The sovereigns of Germany were enabled to maintain standing armies out of their own revenues, and the privilege of the states to grant taxes, to keep them when collected, and to control their expenditure, became useless.∗ The very contrary of this happened in Britain. The property of the sovereign became the property of the nation, and he became dependant on the parliament, not only for the means of carrying on war, but for the means of supporting his domestic establishment. The sovereigns of Germany possess a large part of the land as their own property, but the sovereign of Great Britain has little other wealth than an income fixed by the parliament.
In Germany, the clergy, as an independent part of the states, were destroyed, the nobles reduced to dependance by their poverty, and the magistrates of the towns were rendered insignificant by their ambition of governing independent of the people. In the same proportion as the sovereigns increased in wealth and power, the states lost great part of their influence as political bodies, and they are only now likely to regain it by becoming the representatives of the people and of public opinion.
There are some points of difference between the constitutions of these states of Germany and the parliament of Britain, and in the circumstances of the two countries, that deserve further notice. All the members of the states of Germany were in general members for life. In Britain the power of the crown is increased by parliaments lasting seven years instead of three, and the sovereigns of Germany must have had a proportionately greater influence over deputies who were never subjected to account to their constituents. Holding their situations for life, and at the same time managing the taxes, the interest of the deputies came to be the same as the interest of the crown, and they were easily persuaded to join in all its measures. A struggle between the landed and the commercial interest of Great Britain, in which each one is ready to buy the favour of the sovereign by sacrificing the other, has very often increased his power at the expence of both. The same fact is true of the German states; but, separated as the deputies of the towns were from the nobles, opposed to them as they have ever been since towns were first built, they were seldom or never disposed to act in strict concert. Each party very often made conditions for itself, and most generally the towns took on themselves a stipulated and unequal portion of the common burdens. The two bodies had no common interest. They were jealous of each other, and both sought the protection of the sovereign.
The wealth which has been diffused in our country by commerce, and the change in property which that has occasioned, is at present a very marked difference between Britain and the north of Germany, but that can hardly be considered as a primary cause of the difference in our political institutions. The facility of acquiring landed property in Britain, which enables the merchant to give stability to his wealth, and to acquire political power, has had great influence; but the mere extent of our commerce is rather a consequence than a cause of our political regulations. In the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, when every town of the north of Germany was a trading town of some importance, when Brunswick, and Hannover, and Goslar, were members of the Hanseatic league, the north of Germany had probably as much commerce as England at the same period. The commerce of Britain has gradually increased since then, while that of Germany has stood still, if it has not actually diminished. The country possesses sea-coast, noble rivers, and all possible advantages of communication, but the same freedom has not been left to its trade as to that of Britain. The diminution of its commerce has been caused by impolitic regulations, but, as it once equalled our own, could it have given that freedom of which we boast, Germany would have possessed freedom as well as England. The extent of our commerce, by accumulating capital in the hands of a few persons, may be supposed rather to have impeded than promoted political liberty.
From the very imperfect manner in which the British parliament is composed, and from the total want of general principles in its formation, it has no real claim to the character of an accurate representation of the people, and there can be no doubt that all the good which we ascribe to it has been produced far less by virtue of its own composition, than by the influence of the public press. This has given it the support of public opinion, has embodied it with the nation, and prevented it from becoming what its constitution would otherwise have made it,—the mere organ of the ministry or of the monarch. Without the press its members would have possessed merely the influence which their own property, and the influence which the power of the persons who appoint them could give, and they would then have been a few individuals taking care of their own paltry interests. It is the press alone which has given them the support of the public, has elevated them to the dignity of legislators for the nation, and has invested them with all the power which flows from possessing the confidence of a great and a mighty people. If there were no busy, well-informed, meddling public, if there were no free press, our House of Commons would only be a larger sort of council to the crown, a more extensive ministry, exercising its office by usurping the name of the people.
The Germans have always been, till within a few years, destitute of any vehicle for public opinion, and of every means of giving it weight by concentration. Both as Germans, and as Austrians, Prussians, Hannoverians, &c. &c., they have never been united. They have had nothing in common but the name. Their country has constantly been subjected to a change in its governors or proprietors, and there has, therefore, been no common bond for the people. Their attention has been exclusively occupied with the trifles of learning, with the parade of war, or with the more necessary business of procuring subsistence. Many of them have had no time, and the rest have had no inclination, to attend to political affairs. There has been a want of large bodies of men, who regarded themselves as having a common interest, and there was no means of uniting the Germans into such bodies till they acquired a common literature. They have never regarded their states as the palladium of political freedom, they have, in truth, only thought of it within a few years. The states have, therefore, never had the power and the noble character of representing a whole nation. And one great cause why institutions so similar in their origin as the states of Germany and the Parliament of Great Britain, have had different results, has been, that the former have wanted that political public, and that free press which have saved the latter from becoming an insignificant council of the crown. It is by our own interference, by our own virtues, that we have gained all our advantages, and if liberty be, next to health, the greatest earthly good, we may appreciate how much the Germans have lost by neglecting to direct their own concerns, and by that implicit confidence which they have placed in their rulers.
[∗]Most of the foregoing information relative to the states is taken from a work entitled, Das Königreich, Hannover, published at Nordhausen in 1818 by Heinrick Luden; Professor of History at the university of Jena. As I may hereafter quote this work, I shall then do it under the title of Luden.
[∗]Geschichte des Fürstenthums, Hannover, Vol. I. p. 89–92.
[∗]Handbuch der vaterländischen Geschichte, Vol. IV. p. 409.
[∗]Luden, p. 63.—All the historical writers accuse the English commissariat of having refused to pay, at the end of the seven years’ war, for many things which had been delivered for the use of the army, and even to pay some part of the money due to the troops of Hannover. It would be a pleasure to see this charge on our national honour disproved.
[∗]Venturini, Vol. IV. p. 144, &c.
[†]Since the text was written, I have had an opportunity of reading a very able article in the Edinburgh Review for February 1818, on the states of Wirtemberg. As the constitution of that country is there described, it resembled in most points that of the different provinces of Hannover. The writer of that article is, however, mistaken in limiting this sort of constitution to Wirtemberg and Friezland. Every country of Germany had one somewhat similar.
[∗]Geschichte des Fürstenthums, Hannover, Vol. I. p. 1.
[∗]The states of Wirtemberg kept the taxes levied by their authority. They amounted, before 1805, to 1,060,000 florins. The revenues of the church were 1,000,000 florins, but the revenues of the then duke was 2,117,000 florins. The independent revenue, therefore, of the duke, exceeded the produce of the taxes and the revenue of the church. The Protestant church was richer in Wirtemberg than in any other part of Germany.