Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE 19 - The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe
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LECTURE 19 - 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).
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Power and attributes of the British Parliament in the fourteenth century. ~ At its origin, and subsequent to its complete development, the Parliament retained the name of the Great Council of the kingdom. ~ Difference between its attributes and its actual power at these two epochs. ~ Absorption of almost the entire government by the Crown; gradual resumption of its influence by the Parliament.
The first name borne in England by the assembly which was succeeded by the Parliament, was, as you have seen, that of the great council, the common council of the kingdom,—magnum commune consilium regni. The same name has also been given to the Parliament in England for the last two centuries, when it is desired to indicate completely the nature of its interference in the government, and the part which it there performs. It is called the great national council: the king governs in Parliament, that is to say, with the advice and consent of the great council of the nation.
Thus, both at the origin of the British government, and since it has attained its complete development, the same idea has been attached to the assembly, or union of the great public assemblies; and they have both been designated by the same word.
At both these periods, the Parliament or the corresponding assembly which preceded it, has never actually been, and, indeed, could not be considered as a special power, distinct from the government properly so called—an accessory limited in its action to a certain number of affairs or emergencies. The government itself has resided in it. All superior powers have there been concentrated and called into exercise.
At the origin of modern States, and especially of England, it was very far from being thought that the whole and sole right of the body of capable citizens, of the political nation, consisted in consenting to the imposition of taxes; that they were otherwise subjected to an independent authority, and were not authorized in any way to interfere, either directly or indirectly, in the general affairs of the State. Whatever these affairs might be, they were their affairs, and they always occupied themselves with them, when their importance naturally called for their intervention. This is testified by the history of the Saxon Wittenagemot, of the Anglo-Norman Magnum Consilium and of all the national assemblies of the German peoples, in the earliest period of their existence. These assemblies were truly the great national council, deliberating and deciding on the affairs of the nation in concert with the king.
When the representative system has achieved all its mighty conquests, and borne its essential fruits, it has invariably resorted to this; and returned in fact to the point from which it set out. In spite of all distinctious and apparent limitations, the power of Parliament has extended to everything, and has exercised a more or less immediate, but in reality a decisive influence on all the affairs of the State. Parliament has again become the great national council in which all the national interests are debated and regulated, sometimes by means of anterior deliberation, at other times by those of responsibility.
When this first and last condition of free governments has been recognized, it will be perceived that a very different intermediate condition is to be met with, in which Parliament, although sometimes styled the great national council, exercises none of its functions, does not in a permanent manner interfere in political affairs, and is not, in a word, the seat and habitual instrument of government. During the whole of this period, the government is separate from the Parliament, and resides altogether in the royal power, around which are grouped the principal members of the great aristocracy. The Parliament is necessary in certain cases, but it is not the centre, the focus, of political action. It exercises rights, defends its liberties, and labours for their extension; but in-fluences the government in no decisive way: and principles which belong only to absolute monarchy co-exist with the more or less frequent convocation of the representatives of the nation.
Such was the state of the British Parliament, from its formation in the thirteenth century until nearly the end of the seventeenth. It was only at the end of the seventeenth century that it resumed all the characteristics of a great national council, and became once more the seat of the entire government.
The British Parliament was not, then, in the fourteenth century either what the public assemblies of the German peoples had originally been, nor what it is in the present day. In order properly to comprehend what, at that period, was the nature of its power and the scope of its influence, we must follow the progress of events.
Common deliberation on common affairs is the principle, as well as the most simple form, of political liberty. This principle fully obtained at the infancy of modern nations. The national assembly was the great council in which public affairs of every kind were transacted. The king, the natural head of this council, was required to convoke it, and to follow its advice.
By the dispersion of the nation over an extended territory, the great national council became dispersed, and could not be assembled: for some time, however, it retained its ancient form, and the full extent of its ancient rights; but power is attached to continual presence, and the great council became of rare occurrence. Its numbers rapidly thinned; and it was very soon composed of great landowners alone, whom wealth, political importance, and that ambition which increases with the growth of power, frequently assembled round the king. The government, which formerly resided in the great national council, now resided only in this new council, formed of the king and the great barons, who became daily further separated from the body of the nation. The same words continued to be employed: the king always governed with his great council; but this was no longer the same assembly; the government and the body of the nation had become disjoined.
The king endeavoured to free himself from the great barons, and to govern alone; they resisted; and in the struggle in which they engaged for the de-fence of their liberties or the preservation of their influence in the central government, they were compelled to seek support from the body of the nation, the freeholders and the burgesses. The issue of this struggle was favourable to liberty; the freeholders and the burgesses, who were become almost strangers to the central government, renewed their connection with it by the formation of Parliament; and this great council of the king, which for two centuries had been continually contracting, once more began to extend.
But at their return, the new citizens were very far from taking the same place which their ancestors had occupied. The development of inequality is always the first result of the progress of the social state. Royalty had extended and fortified its power; it now existed by itself, powerful and independent, and claiming distinct rights proportionate to its own strength. It was the same with the great barons, who also were strong and independent in themselves. If it had been possible to congregate in a single assembly all the descendants of those ancient Saxons or Normans who had originally formed the great common council, a very different spectacle would have been presented. Instead of finding an assembly of warriors, not enjoying perfect equality, certainly, but sufficiently equal for each to preserve his personal importance, and to consider himself in a condition to defend it; instead of seeing a chief at their head, too little distinguished from the principal men among them to be powerful without their adherence—there would have been a king invested with great wealth and power, mighty barons followed by a multitude of retainers almost entirely dependent upon them, and a body of citizens obliged to unite and act collectively for the recovery of some influence over those measures which interested them most directly. In this new composition of society and of the national assembly, the deputies of the counties and boroughs were very far from pretending to associate themselves with the government properly so called, or from thinking to control or direct the central power in all public affairs; several centuries necessarily elapsed before their ideas could acquire so much generality, and their interference in Parliament became so comprehensive. They assembled there for the sole purpose of defending themselves, and those whom they represented, against the most crying abuses of power, against the violent and arbitrary invasion of their persons and their possessions. Discussing the demands for supplies that were addressed to them, and presenting their complaints to the government against the most perilous acts of injustice of the agents of the king or of the great nobles, constituted the whole of their mission, and, in their own opinion, the full extent of their rights. Their personal importance was too trivial, and their intellectual activity too limited, for them to imagine themselves called to discuss and regulate the general affairs of the State. They resisted power when it directly attacked them, or required great sacrifices from them; but royalty and its prerogatives, the ordinary council of the king, and his measures in regard to legislation, peace and war, or general politics, in a word, the government properly so called, were entirely beyond their interference. They had not the power, or even the wish, to meddle with such matters; it was all discussed and decided between the king, his ministers, and the great nobles who were naturally called to take part therein by the elevation and importance of their social position.
Both the ancient assembly of the Saxon or Norman warriors, then, and the existing Parliament, would be vainly sought for in the Parliament of the fourteenth century. No violence is done to facts: a new society had been formed which could only engender a political order in accordance with its own character. Great inequality prevailed, and this inequality would naturally reappear between the powers to which it gave birth. The primitive and simple unity which exists in an uncivilized community had disappeared; the wise unity to which a state of civilised society can elevate itself by the diffusion of wealth and intelligence, was still far distant. There was a king, a House of Lords, and a House of Commons: but there was not a Parliament in the political sense which is now attached to that word.
The permanent co-existence of royalty and a great public council, through all these vicissitudes of government and liberty, is an important fact. This council, formed at first by the general assembly of the nation, afterwards restricted to the great barons, and speedily admitting within its circle the representatives of other social conditions, has always been in England the principal organ of the central government. The English monarchy has never succeeded in isolating and enfranchising itself therefrom. It has been narrowed or extended by reason of changes occurring in society: but it has always constituted the condition and form of the monarchy. Popular liberty, so to speak, has always maintained a footing in the central power; the nation has never been completely excluded from participation in its own affairs. The progress of Parliament has been the progress of the government itself. In vain was the House of Commons feeble and inactive at its origin: it did exist, and it formed part of the king’s council; it was always present to embrace, in some measure, every opportunity of extending its influence, and aggrandising its position and the part it had to perform. In the fourteenth century, its power was very limited, its attributes very restricted, and its intervention in public affairs very infrequent; but it was impossible that it should not daily increase. In effect it did greatly increase from the time of Edward I. to that of Henry VI. During the wars of the Red and White Roses, the great feudal aristocracy destroyed itself by its contentions. When Henry VII. ascended the throne, there no longer existed a body of great barons capable of offering armed resistance to the royal power. The House of Commons, though strengthened, had not yet emerged from its condition of inferiority, and was incapable of taking the place of the great barons in resistance to royalty. Hence the Tudor despotism in the sixteenth century, the only period at which the maxims of absolute power have prevailed in England; but even in that very century, the House of Commons daily penetrated further into the government, until its power was fully revealed by the great Revolution of the seventeenth century.
I have now given you a glimpse of the space between the period of the definitive formation of the British Parliament, and that at which it sought to obtain its entire dominion. In our subsequent lectures we shall examine the principal phases in the development of this great government during those three centuries.