Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE 1 - The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LECTURE 1 - François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe 
The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, trans. Andrew R. Scoble, Introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
Subject of the course: the history of the origin and establishment of representative government in Europe. ~ Different aspects under which history is considered at various epochs. ~ Poetic history; philosophic history; political history. ~ Disposition of our time to consider history under these various aspects. ~ Fundamental principle and essential characteristics of representative government. ~ Existence of this principle and these characteristics in England at all times.
I think it necessary to remind you, gentlemen, of the plan which I adopted last year with regard to our study of the political institutions of Europe. The essential object of that plan was to give some unity and compactness to this vast history. And this is not an arbitrary and self-chosen object. In the development of our continent, all its peoples and all its governments are connected together; in spite of all struggles and separations, there is really some unity and compactness in European civilization. This unity, which has been revealing itself from day to day, is now evident; never have geographical limits possessed less sway than in our times; never has such a community of ideas, feelings, aspirations, and efforts united, in spite of territorial demarcations, so great a mass of men. That which is now revealed has been labouring for more than twelve centuries to manifest itself; this external and apparent community has not always existed; but such has always been, at bottom, the unity of European civilization, that it is impossible thoroughly to understand the history of any of the great modern peoples without considering the history of Europe as a whole, and contemplating the course pursued by humanity in general. It is a vast drama in which every people has its part to perform, and with the general events of which we must be acquainted in order to understand the particular scenes connected therewith.
I have divided the history of the political institutions of Europe into four great epochs, which are distinguished from each other by essentially different characteristics. The first is the barbarian epoch; a time of conflict and confusion, in which no society could be established, no institution be founded and become regularly prevalent in any part of Europe; this epoch extends from the fifth to the tenth century. The second is the feudal epoch, and extends from thetenth to the fourteenth century. The third is the epoch of efforts towards constitutional monarchy; feudalism declines, the populations become free, and royalty employs them to extend and augment its power; this epoch embraces the period from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. In the fourth period, on the Continent, all efforts towards a representative system have failed or almost entirely disappeared; pure monarchy prevails. England alone decidedly obtains a constitutional government. This epoch lasts from the sixteenth century to the French Revolution.
These epochs were not determined by an arbitrary choice,—their division results from the general facts which characterize them. They will not all form the subject of this course of lectures. I wish to study the political institutions of Europe with you, and representative government is the centre towards which all our studies tend. Where I perceive no trace of the representative system, and no direct effort to produce it, I turn aside, and transfer my attention to some other quarter. Nor shall I merely limit our studies in reference to epochs only; I shall limit them also in respect to places. Last year, in my lectures on the first epoch, I did not follow the progress of political institutions in the whole of Europe, but confined my observations to France, Spain, and England. We have now to study the third epoch; but the States-General of France and the Cortes of Spain were only unfruitful attempts at representative government. I shall therefore postpone our study of them, and devote this year’s course to the attentive examination of the origin of representative government in England, the only country in which it received uninterrupted and successful development. This study is particularly necessary to us at the present day, and we are ourselves well-disposed to enter upon it with an earnest desire to reap advantage from it.
According to their political state, and in the degree of their civilization, do the peoples consider history under various aspects, and look to it for various kinds of interest. In the early ages of society, whilst all is new and attractive to the youthful imagination of man, he demands poetical interest; the memories of the past form the groundwork of brilliant and simple narratives, fitted to charm an eager and easily satis fied curiosity. If, in such a community, where social existence is in full vigour, and the human mind is in a state of excitement, Herodotus reads to the Greeks assembled at Olympia his patriotic narratives, and the discoveries of his voyages, the Greeks delight in them as in songs of Homer. If civilization is but little advanced—if men live more isolated—if “country,” in the concrete, at least, exists but slightly for them—we find simple chronicles intermingled with fables and legends, but always marked with that naïf and poetical character which, in such a condition of existence, the human mind requires in all things. Such are the European chronicles from the tenth to the fifteenth century. If, at a later period, civilization becomes developed in a country without the coeval establishment of liberty, without an energetic and extensive political existence, when the period of enlightenment, of wealth, and of leisure, does arrive, men look for philosophical interest in history; it no longer belongs to the field of poetry; it loses its simplicity; it no longer wears its former real and living physiognomy; individual characters take up less space, and no longer appear under living forms; the mention of names becomes more rare; the narrative of events, and the description of men, are more its pretext than its subject; all becomes generalized; readers demand a summary of the development of civilization, a sort of theory of the peoples and of events; history becomes a series of dissertations on the progress of the human race, and the historian seems only to call up the skeleton of the past, in order to hang upon it general ideas and philosophic reflections. This occurred in the last century; the English historians of that period, Robertson, Gibbon, and Hume, have represented history under that aspect; and most of the German writers still follow the same system. The philosophy of history predominates; history, properly so called, is not to be found in them.
But if advanced civilization and a great development of the human intellect coincide, in a nation, with an animated and keen political existence; if the struggle for liberty, by exciting the mind, provoke energy of character; if the activity of public life be added to the general claims of thought, history appears in another light; it becomes, so to speak, practical. No longer is it required to charm easily excited imaginations by its narratives, nor to satisfy by its meditations active intellects debarred from exercising themselves upon aught but generalities. But men expect from it experience analogous to the wants they feel, to the life they live; they desire to understand the real nature and hidden springs of institutions; to enter into the movements of parties, to follow them in their combinations, to study the secret of the influence of the masses, and of the action of individuals; men and things must resuscitate before them, no longer merely as an interest or diversion, but as a revelation of how rights, liberties, and power are to be acquired, exercised, and defended; how to combine opinions, interests, passions, the necessities of circumstances, all the elements of active political life. That is what history becomes for free nations; it is from that point of view that Thucydides wrote the history of the Peloponnesian war, Lord Clarendon and Bishop Burnet that of the English Revolution.
Generally, and by the very nature of things, it is in regular order, and at distant intervals, that history assumes one or other of these various kinds of interest in the eyes of the people. A taste for simple narratives, a liking for philosophic generalizations, and a craving for political instruction, almost always belong to very different times and degrees of civilization.
By a rare concurrence of circumstances, all these tastes and acquirements seem to unite at the present day; and history is now susceptible amongst us of all these kinds of interest. If it narrate to us with truth and simplicity the first attempts at social life, the manners of infant nations; that singular state of society in which ideas are few in number but keen, and wants are energetic although unvaried, in which all the pretensions of barbarian force struggle against all the habits of wild liberty, it will find us capable of understanding such a recital, and somewhat disposed to be charmed therewith. Fifty years ago, a faithful picture of this age in the life of peoples would have appeared only coarse and revolving; its interesting and poetical character would have been neither relished nor understood; conventionalisms were then turned into habits, and factitious manners held sway over the whole of society; Homer himself, in an age so destitute of simplicity and naturalness, was admired on hearsay only; and if no one dared to call in question his title to glory, he was pitied for having been obliged to shed the lustre of his genius upon an epoch of barbarism and ignorance. Prodigious events have since renewed the state of society, broken up old forms, conventional habits, and factitious manners; simple ideas and natural feelings have resumed their empire; a kind of rejuvenescence has taken place in the minds of men, and they have become capable of understanding man at every degree of civilization, and of taking pleasure in the simple and poetic narratives of infant society. In our days it has been felt that barbarian times also deserved, in some respects, to be called heroic times; in our days, mankind has discovered the faculty, as well as the necessity, of obtaining a true knowledge of the institutions, ideas, and manners of peoples, on their entrance into social life. Thus this section of history has regained an interest which it had ceased to possess; it is no longer regarded as the patrimony of the erudite; it has been seized upon by novelists themselves, and the public have taken delight in following their footsteps.
At the same time, the need of broad philosophical views of the course of human affairs and the progress of society, has gained strength instead of becoming extinguished; we have not ceased to look to facts for something more than mere narratives; we still expect them to be summed up in general ideas, and to furnish us with those great results which throw light on the sciences of legislation and political economy, and on the vast study of the destiny of the human race. Far, then, from being less inclined to consider history under a philosophic point of view, it seems to have acquired a wider interest in this respect. More than ever, we feel the necessity of tracing events back to their primitive causes, of reducing them to their simplest expression, of penetrating into their remotest effects; and if old chronicles have regained their charm in our eyes, the great combinations of historic philosophy still constitute a pressing necessity of our minds.
Finally, our birth into public life, the institutions that we possess and that we will not lose, that aurora of liberty which, though it arose in the midst of tempests, is not destined to perish therein, the past which we leave behind us, the present with which we are busied, the future which awaits us, infine, our entire position—all impart to history, considered under the political point of view, the most imperious interest. Before our time, the movement of public life, the game of parties, the war of factions, the struggles of assemblies, all the agitations and developments of power and liberty, were things which men had heard of but had not seen, which they had read of in books but which were not actually existing around the reader. These things have occurred, and are now occurring under our very eyes; every consideration leads us to study them, every circumstance aids us to comprehend them. And not to us alone has political life been restored: it has returned into history, hitherto cold and vague to the minds of those who had not been struck by the real visions of the scenes which it relates. And while regaining our comprehension of history, we have also become aware of the counsels and the lessons which it can furnish us; its utility no longer consists, as formerly, in a general idea, a sort of moral and literary dogma professed by writers rather than adopted and practised by the public. Now, a more or less thorough acquaintance with history, and especially with that of free peoples, is not merely an accomplishment of cultivated minds; it is a necessity to every citizen who feels desirous to take part in the affairs of his country, or merely to appreciate them correctly. And thus this great study now presents itself to us with all the kinds of interest that it is able to offer, because we have in us ability to consider it under all its aspects, and to seek and to find all that it contains.1
Such are the motives which induce me to select the history of the political institutions of England as the subject of this course of lectures. Here, in effect, history considered under its three different aspects, presents itself with the greatest simplicity and richness. Nowhere have the primitive manners of modern peoples been preserved for a longer period, or exercised so decisive an influence upon the institutions of a country. Nowhere do great philosophical considerations spring with greater abundance from the contemplation of events and men. Here, infine, representative government, the special object of our study, developed itself without interruption, received into its bosom and fertilized by its alliance the religious movement imparted to Europe in the sixteenth century, and thus became the starting point of the political reformation which is now beginning on the Continent.
It is by no means my intention to relate to you the history of England. I intend merely to consider it under its political point of view; and even under this point of view, we shall not study all the institutions of the kingdom. Representative government is our theme; and we shall therefore follow the history of the Parliament step by step. We shall only refer to judicial, administrative, and municipal institutions in so far as they are connected with representative government, and have contributed either to form it, or to determine its character.
Last year, before entering upon our examination of facts, I attempted to define with precision what we ought to understand by representative government. Before seeking for its existence, I desired to know by what signs we might discern its presence. Now that we are about to study the history of the only representative government which, until our days, has existed with full vitality in Europe, I think it well to recapitulate some of these ideas.
I have said that I had no very high opinion of the division of governments by publicists, into monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic; and that, in my opinion, it was by their essential principle, by their general and internal idea, that governments were characterized and distinguished. The most general idea that we can seek out in a government is its theory of sovereignty, that is, the manner in which it conceives, places, and attributes the right of giving law and carrying it into execution in society.
There are two great theories of sovereignty. One seeks for it and places it in some one of the real forces which exist upon the earth, no matter whether it be the people, the monarch, or the chief men of the people. The other maintains that sovereignty as a right can exist nowhere upon earth, and ought to be attributed to no power, for no earthly power can fully know and constantly desire truth, reason, and justice—the only sources of sovereignty as a right, and which ought also to be the rule of sovereignty in fact. The first theory of sovereignty founds absolute power, whatever may be the form of the government. The second combats absolute power in all its forms, and recognises its legitimacy in no case. It is not true to say that of these two theories, one or the other reigns exclusively in the various governments of the world. These two theories commingle in a certain measure; for nothing is completely destitute of truth or perfectly free from error. Nevertheless, one or the other always dominates in every form of government, and may be considered as its principle.
The true theory of sovereignty, that is, the radical illegitimacy of all absolute power, whatever may be its name and place, is the principle of representative government.
In fact, in representative government, absolute power, sovereignty as a right, inhere in none of the powers which concur to form the government: they must agree to make the law; and even when they have agreed, instead of accepting for ever the absolute power which actually results from their agreement, the representative system subjects this power to the variableness of election. And the electoral power itself is not absolute, for it is confined to the choice of the men who shall have a share in the government.
It is, moreover, the character of that system, which nowhere admits the legitimacy of absolute power, to compel the whole body of citizens incessantly, and on every occasion, to seek after reason, justice, and truth, which should ever regulate actual power. The representative system does this, 1. by discussion, which compels existing powers to seek after truth in common; 2. by publicity, which places these powers when occupied in this search, under the eyes of the citizens; and 3. by the liberty of the press, which stimulates the citizens themselves to seek after truth, and to tell it to power.
Finally, the necessary consequence of the true theory of sovereignty is, that all actual power is responsible. If, in fact, no actual power possesses sovereignty as a right, they are all obliged to prove that they have sought after truth, and have taken it for their rule; and they must legitimize their title by their acts, under penalty of being taxed with illegitimacy. The responsibility of power is, in fact, inherent in the representative system; it is the only system which makes it one of its fundamental conditions.
After having recognised the principle of representative government, we investigated its external characteristics, that is to say, the forms which necessarily accompany the principle, and by which alone it can manifest its existence. These forms we reduced to three: 1. division of powers; 2. election; and 3. publicity. It is not difficult to convince ourselves that these characteristics necessarily flow from the principle of representative government. Indeed, 1. all sole power in fact soon becomes absolute in right. It is therefore necessary that all power in fact should be conscious of dependence. “All unity,” says Pascal, “that is not multitude, is tyranny.” Hence results the necessity for two Houses of Parliament. If there be only one, the executive power either suppresses it, or falls into so subaltern a condition that there would soon remain only the absolute power of the single House of Parliament. 2. Unless election occurred frequently to place power in new hands, that power which derived its right from itself would soon become absolute in right; this is the tendency of all aristocracies. 3. Publicity, which connects power with society, is the best guarantee against the usurpation of sovereignty as a right by the actual power.
Representative government can neither be established nor developed without assuming, sooner or later, these three characteristics; they are the natural consequences of its principle; but they do not necessarily co-exist, and representative government may exist without their union.
This was the case in England. It is impossible not to enquire why representative government prevailed in that country, and not in the other States of the Continent. For, indeed, the Barbarians who settled in Great Britain had the same origin and the same primitive manners as those who, after the fall of the Roman Empire, overran Europe; and it was not in the midst of very different circumstances that they consolidated their dominion in that country.
From the fifth to the twelfth century, we find no more traces of true representative government in England than upon the Continent; its institutions were analogous to those of the other European nations; and we behold in every land the conflict of the three systems of free, feudal, and monarchical institutions.
We cannot fully resolve this question beforehand, and in a general manner. We shall answer it gradually, as we advance in the examination of facts. We shall see by what successive and varied causes political institutions took a different course in England to that which they pursued on the Continent. We may, however, indicate at once the great fact which, from a very early period, determined the character and direction of British institutions.
The first of the great external characteristics of representative government, division of power, is met with in every age, in the government of England. Never was the government concentrated in the hands of the king alone; under the name of the Wittenagemot, of the Council or Assembly of the Barons, and after the reign of Henry III., of the Parliament, a more or less numerous and influential assembly, composed in a particular manner, was always associated with the sovereignty. For a long period, this assembly somewhat subserved despotism, and sometimes substituted civil war and anarchy in the place of despotism; but it always interfered in the central government. An independent council, which derived its strength from the individual power of its members, was always adjoined to the royal authority. The English monarchy has always been the government of the king in council, and the king’s council was frequently his adversary. The great council of the king became the Parliament.
This is the only one of the essential characteristics of the system of representative government, which the government of England presents, until the fourteenth century. During the course of this epoch, the division of power, far from efficiently repressing despotism, served only to render it more changeful and more dangerous. The council of barons was no more capable than the king himself, of comprehending and establishing a stable political order and true liberty; these two forces were incessantly in conflict, and their conflict was war, that is to say, the devastation of the country, and the oppression of the mass of the inhabitants. But from this there resulted, in process of time, two decisive facts, from which liberty took its origin; they were these:
1. From the very fact that power was divided, it followed that absolute power, sovereignty as a right, was never attributed to the king, nor supposed to be in itself legitimate. Now, this is the very principle of representative government; but this principle was far from being understood, or even suspected, philosophically speaking. It was incessantly stifled by force, or else it was lost in the confusion of the ideas of the time regarding divine right, the origin of power, and so forth; but it existed in the depths of the public mind, and became by slow degrees a fundamental maxim. We find this principle formally expressed in the writings of Bracton, Lord Chief Justice under Henry III., and of Fortescue, who held the same office under Henry VI. “The king,” says Bracton, “should be subject to no man, but only to God and to the law, for the law makes him king; he can do nothing upon earth but that which, by law, he may do; and that which is said in the Pandects, that that which pleases the king becomes law, is no objection; for we see by the context, that these words do not mean the pure and simple will of the prince, but that which has been determined by the advice of his councils, the king giving the sanction of his authority to their deliberations upon the subject.”
“The English monarchy,” says Fortescue, “ non solum est regalis, sed legalis et politica potestas,” 2 and he frequently develops this idea. The limitation of powers was, thus, at a very early period, a matter of public right in England; and the legitimacy of sole and absolute power was never recognized. Thus was established and preserved, for better times, the generative principle of all legitimate power as well as of all liberty; and by the virtue of this principle alone was maintained, in the souls of the people, that noble sentiment of right which becomes extinguished and succumbs wherever man finds himself in presence of an unlimited sovereignty, whatever may be its form and name.
2. The division of the supreme power produced yet another result. When the towns had acquired greater wealth and importance, when there had been formed, beyond the circle of the king’s immediate vassals, a nation capable of taking part in political life, and which the government found it necessary to treat with consideration, this nation naturally adjoined itself to the great council of the king, which had never ceased to exist. In order to gain itself a place in the central government, it had no need abruptly to create new institutions; a place was already prepared to receive it, and although its entrance into the national council ere long changed its nature and forms, it at least was not under the necessity of asserting and re-animating its existence. There was a fact capable of receiving extension, and of admitting into its bosom new facts, together with new rights. The British Parliament, to say truth, dates only from the formation of the House of Commons; but without the presence and importance of the council of Barons, the House of Commons would, perhaps, never have been formed.
Thus, on the one hand, the permanence of the idea that the sovereignty ought to be limited, and, on the other, the actual division of the central power, were the germs of representative government in England. Until the end of the thirteenth century we met with no other of its characteristics; and the English nation, until that period, was not perhaps actually more free and happy than any of the peoples of the Continent. But the principle of the right of resistance to oppression was already a legal principle in England; and the idea of the supremacy which holds dominion over all others, of the supremacy of the law, was already connected, in the mind of the people and of the jurisconsults themselves, not with any particular person, or with any particular actual power, but with the name of the law itself. Already the law was said to be superior to all other powers; sovereignty had thus, in principle at least, left that material world in which it could not fix itself without engendering tyranny, to place itself in that moral world, in which actual powers ought constantly to seek it. Many favourable circumstances were doubtless necessary to fecundate these principles of liberty in England. But when the sentiment of right lives in the souls of men, when the citizen meets with no power in his country which he is bound to consider as infallible and absolutely sovereign, liberty can never fail to spring up. It has developed itself in England less universally, less equally, and less reasonably, we venture to believe, than we are permitted to hope will be the case at the present day in our own country; but, in fine, it was born, and increased in growth in that country more than in any other; and the history of its progress, the study of the institutions which served as its guarantees, and of the system of government to which its destinies seem henceforward to link themselves, is at once a great sight and a necessary work for us. We shall enter upon it with impartiality, for we can do so without envy.3
[1. ]These passages are important for understanding the relation between history and politics in Guizot’s writings. Guizot’s method combines broad philosophical views with historical narratives; he writes a political history that seeks to offer political instruction by explaining how rights and liberties were acquired and how various opinions and interests could be combined in political life. In Guizot’s view, a thorough acquaintance with the history of free peoples is necessary to every citizen who wants to get involved in politics.
[2. ]Not only is a kingly, but a lawful and civil power.
[3. ]The emphasis on the division and limitation of power and sovereignty is central to Guizot’s liberalism. He pointed out that the limitation of powers and the affirmation of the right of resistance to oppression were matters of public right in England. Guizot also mentioned that, in England, local powers subsisted and successfully defined and regulated their own action vis-à-vis the central power, while on the Continent, centralization resulted from the vanishing of local powers and the rise of absolute power (HORG, p. 240‒47). Not surprisingly, Guizot believed that, if France were to build a true representative government, the country ought to reinvent local autonomy and local institutions. Madame de Staël’s book Considerations on the French Revolution is essential reading for understanding how England became an object of praise and admiration during the Bourbon Restoration in France. For more details on Guizot’s understanding of English constitutionalism, see HORG, pp. 300‒305, 353‒58, 377‒81, as well as the note on p. 43.